As you enter The Valley of Jordan, located on the corner of 53rd and Ellis, the store’s clean and compact interior seems to belie its biblical title. Up front, the contents are the same as just about any urban convenience store–a poster of a foaming cup of “Eight O’Clock Coffee” fills the window, a display of Doritos greets you at the door, and there are energy drinks aplenty. But towards the back, vying with the Tide and Nutter Butter, are shelves stuffed with Middle Eastern mainstays–fava beans, chickpeas, grape leaves, tahini sauce, an array of pitas, and burlap sacks bulging with Royal Basmati rice with the subheading “fresh from the Himalayas.”
After allowing me to roam around a little, the proprietor waves me over and politely plies me with baklava samples. “Come try our falafel,”said Wael Ghousheh, the store’s owner. “We also have very fresh baba ghanoush.”
Ghousheh has worked hard to create an accommodating atmosphere for his new Hyde Park crowd. Recognizing that his full name is a little hard on the monolingual American mouth, he tells me quickly, “Call me Jordan, everybody does.
Jordan–as in, the Hashemite Kingdom of–is also the country from which the owner hails. Ghousheh, a dapper middle-aged man, spent his early career as a chef at hotels in Amman, the nation’s capital, and in its coastal resort city of Aqaba.
When asked what prompted his abrupt emigration from his native Amman to Hyde Park, Ghousheh cracks a grin and raises his arms in mock-adulation, ”I came for the same reason everyone else comes here, to pursue that American Dream.“ In Ghousheh’s case, that meant flying solo into Chicago fifteen years ago and saving up to buy his own store. He has had a few false starts–he tried to run just an ordinary grocery, but after a few abortive attempts he realized that there was a niche for the traditional dishes he’d grown up with, as well as a local Islamic community with few easy options in terms of procuring halal staples.
“There’s a large mosque up on 47th, but no other places to buy acceptable food until you reach 63rd Street. I found this place by accident,” he continued, emphasizing the end of the phrase. “There was a crash in the middle of a street I normally drive down, and the police rerouted me right through this area. I saw this perfect location and after a chat with the landlord I told him I’d take it right then.”
Ghousheh’s long hours have only yielded a trickle of customers so far. But his friendly manner and commitment to his native dishes have already garnered the store a few regulars. “Hey Jordan, could I have some of that sweet salad I got the other day?” asks a customer strolling in off the street. “And some of that chicken too, man, if you’ve got it,” Mr. Ghousheh, smiling with recognition, heads to the back, rummaging around, presumably, for some of the tabbouleh he’d just been describing to me.
Foraging through the Valley of Jordan freezers, beneath an eclectic assortment of prepackaged Americana–TGI Friday’s Buffalo wings, White Castle burgers, and varied types of taquitos–I unearth minced molukhia, and kibbeh krass, and various cooking yogurts. Luckily for me and unlike many of Chicago’s ethnic groceries, the Valley of Jordan is English-friendly, with clearly printed translations alongside the flowing Arabic script.
Ghousheh imports most of his stock–lamb, beef, and chicken–from special halal farms in Wisconsin. The grocer features a wide selection of meats, ranging from his more high-end, signature shawarma on a spit to an assortment of certified halal hotdogs and beef bacon. In order to be truly considered halal, the name of Allah must be invoked over the animal and it must be specially slaughtered.
By far, though, Ghousheh is proudest of his hummus. “It’s a family recipe, it takes a long time to prepare, and it needs to be very fresh. I come in at 4am every day to start grinding the chickpeas and beans.”
“We need to continue to get the word out, but already business is going well,” he says optimistically. “We’re very popular with vegetarians, and also with Israelis who have similar dietary restrictions.“
What with constant conflagrations around the real Valley of Jordan, a trip to sample this small country’s flavorful dishes on site may not be at the top of many Hyde Parkers’ to-do lists. But if you’re sick of wilted salad and want to get a cheap, authentic Middle-Eastern meal, you should make the effort to meet a certain man from Amman.