Photos by: Ken Goodman
Lebanese-American Jay Hajj revived Mike’s City Diner, a place where you can taste the best falafel’s in Boston and his award-winning Pilgrim Sandwich, voted one of the Best Five Thanksgiving Meals in America. He shares his recipes in a new cookbook.
Mike’s City Diner. A Boston institution that serves classic American fare, fiercely loved by locals and sought out by presidents, TV crews, and celebrities. Twenty years ago, the story was different; this South End eatery was struggling, till a 25-year-old chef took a chance and bought it. Like the young chef, the restaurant has a classic rags-toriches story.
Jay Hajj and his family fled the Lebanese Civil War in 1978. He was 8 when he made the journey from Beirut to Boston that shaped his life. By 13, he was washing dishes at an Italian restaurant, picking up Greek and Puerto Rican accents from the kids in the neighborhood, and gorging himself, as all children should, on apple cider doughnuts and Boston cream pies; and coming HOME to mujaddara, fasoulia, waraa’ aarish, fattoush, freekeh and hummus every night.
“The food people bring comes with stories.” Hajj was fascinated by them all. All the spices and flavors, smells and histories, this new place called America had to offer. He tried everything, while he also brought his Lebanese heritage to the table to share. He developed his own brand of comfort food inspired by both Boston and Beirut.
Now Hajj owns a restaurant and recently released a cookbook titled, Beirut to Boston, Inspired by a Rags-to-Restaurants Story. In it, he combines stories and anecdotes with recipes and family photos. On one page is a portrait of his parents to whom he dedicates the cookbook. On another, his grandmother’s recipe for the best manakish saj in her village, Maasser el Chouf. Stories of wartime food rations alongside the meal Hajj served President Bill Clinton, it is a journey that blends two cultures together perfectly — and a read that will make you hungry.
Hajj says he makes the most authentic falafel in Boston, and his Pilgrim Sandwich (made from Thanksgiving leftovers), was voted one of the Five Best Thanksgiving Meals in America by the Food Network Channel.
He can bring back the mouhammara of our childhoods – with pomegranate syrup, of course – then just as easily turn around and whip up avocado and lime hummus.
“This is America. It’s different people from different cultures. And food opens a window on cultures we don’t know much about,” said Hajj.
American food, like America, he believes, is much more than cheeseburgers and fries. It is every recipe, spice, and herb that ever immigrated to this country. American food is Tex-Mex bowls and California sushi rolls, Chinese fortune cookies and Kentucky Fried Chicken; Chicago versus New York style pizza; Turkish versus Lebanese kabob; samosas versus sambusiks; Indian buffets versus highway drive-throughs; and the competing smells of food carts.
Today Hajj speaks of the American Dream: “alive and well,” he confirms. “My story is much like that of countless immigrants who arrive on our shores each year and forge their own path to a better life. In my case, that path was flavored by the comfort-food cuisine of two cities.”
Now happily married, truly American, and still proudly Lebanese, Hajj lives with his wife, four children, two dogs, chickens and pigs in a farmhouse just outside Boston.