Coralville — At Tabooleh Mediterranean Buffet, the tables are laden with choices.
Diners can try North African and Middle Eastern dishes like turly (lamb with diced potatoes), mesa’a’ah (eggplant with meat and tomato sauce), shakshuka (eggs simmered in spiced tomato sauce), and goulash (in this case the word refers to an Egyptian phyllo meat pie, rather than the European stew by the same name).
The restaurant also has a table of all vegan dishes, including hummus, baba ganoush (eggplant with tahini and olive oil) and vegetarian versions of the meat dishes, plus a grill where a chef is ready to serve shawarma meat, chicken or kofta (a mix of ground beef and lamb).
A salad bar features a variety of pickles, from cucumbers and olives to beets and pickled lemons. For dessert, the star is baklava — multiple kinds with different fillings.
“People are telling me, you’re giving us a very hard time with the variety of food,” co-owner Yasser Gaber said with a laugh.
He and Rania Basyony opened the restaurant a little more than a month ago in a location that formerly housed a Chinese restaurant.
Both originally are from Egypt, where they were family friends. Gaber has lived in the United States for decades, first in New York and then in Iowa for the past 14 years, where he worked in nutrition at the University of Iowa.
“I had an idea to open my own place for a long time,” he said. “People are interested in new food tastes, in something different.”
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When Basyony heard Gaber was planning to open a restaurant, she wanted to invest in the business, and moved to Iowa from Egypt.
“I love to cook. I love to learn about different countries’ food,” she said. “When people say the food is amazing, that is my great pleasure.”
The restaurant’s name is a play off tabbouleh, a chopped parsley salad popular in the region. Gaber said they changed the spelling slightly because they found another restaurant with that name.
Everything is a set price — the buffet is $10.95 for lunch, which does not include the grill, or $16.95 for dinner. Carryout food is priced by weight.
The restaurant serves no pork or alcohol, and everything on the menu is halal, meaning the meat was butchered and prepared according to Islamic practices. That includes the selections at a candy bar, which features nothing with gelatin made from pigs. Gaber’s wife, Gehan Elgazar, makes all the pastries. Beverages include mint tea, Barbican — a brand of fruit-flavored non-alcoholic malt drink — and coffee.
“It’s Turkish coffee, but I like to say it’s Egyptian coffee,” Gaber said.
Buffet offerings change from day to day. The Mediterranean is a big region, and they serve dishes from Egypt, Turkey, Greece, Morocco, Lebanon and more.
“We rotate things. We have 250 menu items, so we can’t serve them all,” Gaber said. “This way everybody can have a taste of home.”
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He said although each country has its own unique cuisine, there are things that unite the region, most notably the generous use of olive oil, as well as dishes found in multiple countries, like hummus, falafel, stuffed grape leaves and baklava.
He said the biggest challenge to running a buffet so far has been people filling up their plates and then eating only a few bites. He encourages people to try small samples before taking full portions, especially with dishes they aren’t familiar with.
“I want to be different. There are a lot of picky people, and we want them to find something they like,” he said. “It takes a lot of preparation. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it to see people eating and happy.”
If you go:
- What: Tabooleh Mediterranean Buffet
- Where: 210 Second St., Coralville
- Hours: Lunch 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily, dinner 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday to Thursday and 4 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Dinner menu served all day Saturday and Sunday.
- Details: (319) 631-3433, taboolehrestaurant.com
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