For the past year, the corner of Johnson and Blanshard was shrouded in an aura of mystery.
After Pig BBQ closed down, the Atrium building’s restaurant-shaped vacancy was filled only with posters, all of which had the same bewildering phrase: “This Is Not A Tacofino”.
But then this July, the new tenants finally moved in, lifted the veil, and revealed Superbaba.
The interior design is a post-modern take on a fifties diner, but the food is unmistakeably handcrafted middle-eastern cuisine.
“[Superbaba] is really a story about collaboration, working together, and this community,” said Abdallah El Chami, co-owner of Superbaba and creator of The Dallah Menu.
“I grew up in Vancouver, also in the middle east, in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon,” said El Chami.
But despite working with food throughout his life, El Chami actually spent the majority of his career in the tech industry. Then, over the past few years, he built a reputation for pop-ups in Vancouver.
“One thing led to another,” said El Chami. “I quit my job, travelled for a bit, came back and serendipitously met (Jason Sussman, Ryan Spong, Josh Carlsen, and Mike Dawson) from Tacofino, met (Robbie Kane) from Cafe Medina and we all had the same idea so we came together to do (Superbaba).”
A Different Kind of Middle-Eastern Restaurant
“We wanted to make it as accessible as possible,” said El Chami. “To remove all of the barriers that ethnic or foreign restaurants have.”
“It is nice to walk in and hear new music or see new words or have people speaking different languages but a lot of people get intimidated by those kinds of things,” he said. “We wanted to create a space where you could try food that might have new flavours… except everything else feels like a restaurant that you would hang out in.”
But regardless of the atmosphere, the food alone offers enough incentive for customers to return. Superbaba’s simple, yet varied menu consists of fresh, locally-sourced (whenever possible) ingredients, 100% Canadian chickpeas, and bread made in-house.
“Our most popular dish and probably my favourite is the chicken kebabs,” said El Chami. “In my opinion, it’s the closest thing you’ll find to a real ‘shwarma sandwich’ I say that in quotes because we don’t cook it on a spit. It’s spiced the same way, it’s the same type of chicken, all that kind of stuff, except we grill it. We just found it’s a better method and you get a better taste from the grill than having it sit on a spit, rotating.”
The Meaning Behind the Name
Asked where the “Superbaba” moniker came from, El Chami gave a surprisingly detailed answer: “It’s two parts. First of all, Canadians say ‘super’ a lot… Also, when you see a lot of middle eastern places, shwarma shops, falafel, kebab, they all have this sort of kitschy moniker in the way they describe their food, like ‘Best Kebab, Super Falafel, #1 Shwarma’, so we wanted to play on that.”
“[Secondly,] ‘Baba’ means different things in different languages but it always has a familial or term of endearment. In Arabic it means Dad, and so I’ll call my Dad, ‘Baba’ but he’ll also refer to me as ‘Baba’. So he’ll say ‘Hey, Baba, can you do this…’ in Arabic. And that’s why we have ‘Hey Baba’ written on the wall.”
Sold Out Opening Week
Despite attempting a “soft opening”, the hype surrounding Superbaba exceeded the restaurant’s wildest expectations.
“We sold out of bread and a couple other things that [first] day and we just shut down the menu and said ‘let’s prep for tomorrow.’ And it kept happening. It happened for three or four days in a row.”
Rather than give customers a patchwork menu, Superbaba closed down for a full day to prepare food. Since then, they’ve been able to remain open for the full extent of their regular hours.
Keeping The Success Going
El Chami stressed that despite the unexpected strength of Superbaba’s opening, the team won’t rest on their laurels.
“People always go ‘Oh, your restaurant’s doing so well!’ But it’s been two weeks,” said El Chami. “Our plan was never ‘let’s have the strongest launch and the rest will take care of itself.’ Our plan was ‘let’s prepare as much as possible’.”
“No one’s just spending money and sitting back. No one has that corporate attitude where it’s just like ‘we’re just going to pay for things and build stuff’.”
In fact, the owners appear to work as hard as any of the rest of the staff, if not harder. El Chami said that Josh Carlsen and Mike Dawson – both of Tacofino Victoria – had been pulling regular 14-16 hours shifts in the kitchen since Superbaba opened its doors.
This is Definitely Not A Tacofino
The future of Superbaba looks bright, but some Victorians might still wonder what the purpose of the original poster marketing was.
“We decided that we would put that [poster] up as a joke,” said El Chami. “[We wanted] a laid back attitude talking about it, and start introducing the idea to people and trying to convince them that we want to be part of the community. [sic]”
But as with any unusual marketing campaign, not all of the feedback was positive. “A lot of rumours started,” El Chami admitted. “People thought it was more of a Tacofino… we started seeing different attitudes towards what it could be. Some people were really happy about it, some people weren’t so stoked about what they thought was big restaurants taking over.”
From Rumours to Reality
However, since Superbaba opened on July 19, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
“The people in Victoria have probably been the greatest people you could ask for in opening a restaurant,” said El Chami. “On the first day when it was so crazy, we had to tell people, ‘Sorry, it’s going to be maybe 15 minutes.’ They were all like, ‘Oh, no problem, we know you guys are opening today.’ You don’t get that attitude in a lot of places.”
“In Victoria, people have been great and patient with us and we thank them every time they come in.”