From Refugees To Restaurateurs

by Mike Corrigan

When Katy Azar's parents, Najeeb and Najla, opened the first Azar's 23 years ago on the corner of Nevada and Empire, there was plenty of room on the local dining scene for a little ethnic diversity.

"Spokane was definitely a meat-and-potatoes town," she recalls with a smile. "It was hard at first. People were like, 'What the hell are you talking about?'"

But Spokane wised up pretty quickly. And today, just about everyone knows about Azar's. Even if you've never dined at the restaurant (you should), you've probably caught the aroma of their magnificent gyros on the breeze at the county fair or at Pig Out (mmm... marinated lamb or beef strips, Tahini sauce and tomatoes wrapped in warm pita bread). In fact, that was how the Azar family first introduced the sensual and healthy cuisine of their homeland to Inland Northwest palates.

"We had to educate people," Azar explains. "We gave out a lot of free samples so people would see what it was like. At first, they didn't have a clue. But people liked the flavor, and they'd come in and order it. Then, they'd become regulars and tell their friends."

Katy was born in Iraq and lived in Jordan before coming to Spokane as a young girl with her parents in 1973. They came, as many immigrants to this country had before them, to escape religious persectution and war -- she lived through three as a child.

"My father was a Christian minister, and that was a risky thing, living in Jordan," she says. "Many times, Dad would be taken away from the house and we wouldn't know if he was going to come back or not. But Dad is very, very wise and he always knew how to handle himself in those situations, and they'd let him go. When you're a Christian, they think you are a spy -- either for the Americans because you're Christian or for the Jews because you're not Muslim. We were damned either way. In our own country, we didn't belong. And enough was enough."

In Spokane, her father owned and operated the 7-11 store at the southwest corner of Empire and Nevada. A few years later, he purchased the small caf & eacute; across the street and transformed it into Spokane's first Greek and Middle Eastern restaurant. But he needed help.

"My parents had sent my sister and I to Jordan to marry men that they had arranged for us to marry. While we were there, my dad sent me a telegram saying that he was buying a restaurant and that he wanted us to work there."

In April 1980, Katy, her sister, her mother and her brother, Victor, began working at Azar's Caf & eacute; on Nevada. Katy's husband, Roy Azar, came to Spokane and joined the team that summer.

"We slowly added dishes to the menu as people started liking them," Azar says. "Just one or two at a time."

Today, the menu at Azar's Restaurant on Monroe (opened by Katy and Roy in 1990) represents Middle Eastern and Greek culinary traditions with rice dishes, lean meats (lamb, beef and chicken), gyros, hummus, kabobs, falafil, Greek salads and amazing lentil soup. For dessert, try the rich, flaky baklava and a Turkish coffee. There's also a thoughtful kid's menu and an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet during the week from noon-2 pm. And every Friday night, dinner guests are treated to live belly dancing.

The restaurant continues to be a family operation. Katy Azar keeps everything on track. Her two sons work here, as do her nieces. Though the original caf & eacute; closed a couple of years ago, Katy's brother and his daughter now own and operate the Azar's Express on East Sprague.

"This is a lot of work," Azar says. "When everything is homemade, you can't just open a package and throw it on the grill. But Spokane people have been great to us. And it's fun. I like to cook. I'm like my mamma. And all the recipes are from her, the way she taught us. Even though she's gone [Mrs. Azar died in November], she lives on here."

Publication date: 04/17/03

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