The inviting counter at Larry Misleh’s Madison Diner.
The food contributions of Cincinnati’s Arab-American community have the Misleh family’s resume deeply embedded. They’ve been operating restaurants in our city for over four generations now. And food being the great equalizer, it’s no surprise that Misleh in Arabic means ‘peacemaker’ or ‘social reformer.’ They’ve been reforming our city’s taste buds since before World War I.
After a visit to Larry Misleh’s Madison Diner this Saturday afternoon, I learned how prominent his family has been in Cincinnati food scene, while keeping their native food traditions alive. Misleh owns Madison Bowl and the Madison Diner, as well as the Oak Tavern in Oakley. He bought the Madison Diner from the owner of El Coyote restaurants in 2006. You can have breakfast or lunch at his retro 8-stool counter, with the sounds of crashing pins in the background. And you can sample his secret recipe Cincinnati chili (whose not-so-secret ingredient is a can of Worthmore Mock Turtle Soup) or his fantastic 12 bean soup with smoked turkey legs, served with a hunk of cornbread. Growing up in the Skyline world, Larry thinks he might have discovered the ingredient (in Worthmore’s Soup) that gives Skyline chili it’s signature taste. His does taste remarkably similar to Skyline, with a light vinegary tang that only Mock Turtle Soup can bring. Spiro Sarakatsannis of Dixie Chili confided to me he thinks the Skyline secret ingredient is red wine vinegar, but I think Larry’s on to something.
Larry’s shaved head and gruffy salt-and-pepper ZZ Top-length goatee make you think he’s tougher than he is. A family man deeply involved in his church, community, and a legacy foodie, he’s keeping the family tradition alive. One of his sons helps him behind the counter at the Diner on the weekends.
Larry’s dad, Jack, and his Uncle Adeeb, owned east side Skyline Chili Franchises starting in the early 1960s, including Oakley, Walnut Hills, Norwood and Fairfax. Adeeb served 13 months in Japan with an Eighth Army construction battalion during World War II. Both have passed, but their legacy lives on in Larry in his food enterprises, and his cousins, who took over operation of the Skyline franchises their dad and uncle owned.
Larry recalls picking up pots of Skyline chili from the original restaurant in Price Hill with his father, before Skyline built their modern commissary. They had to be careful not to drive too fast to avoid chili spillovers in the truck they used to deliver to their east side Skyline franchises.
But the Misleh food legacy started even earlier, with Larry’s grandfather, Kaleel Misleh, a Palestinian Arab Christian immigrant. Kaleel owned El Arab Restaurant, on Fourth Street west of Broadway in the old Broadway Hotel. It opened originally in 1913 in a second-floor apartment on Third Street as a club for Cincinnati Arabians. The Misleh’s moved it “uptown” in 1937 but they held to the Eastern dishes like lamah mishwee, lamb skewered and broiled over an open fire. Larry proudly showed us an old photo on his iPhone of his 18 year old father standing in front of the restaurant. Kaleel met his wife, Alice Hamad, a Lebanese immigrant, through the community. and their children helped him operate the restaurant for over 50 years until it closed in 1962.
A 1947 Cincy Enquirer article talks about Alice Misleh: “Mrs. Alice Misleh and her Arabian cooks can prepare scores of Arab dishes like grape leaves stuffed with rice, lamb and eggplant stew. Lamb is the basic meat on the menu and the Misleh’s offer some eight to 10 different Arab dishes daily.” Alice also owned her own Lebanese restaurant on Third street for a few years.
Another article describes some more of the Lebanese menu items the Misleh’s served at the El Arab. On the menu were Mohamisa (Lamb Stew) Lebanese-Style Rice, Kibbeh, Kubiz (Traditional Flat Bread), Salata (Vegetable Salad), Baklawa (Honey-Nut Pastry), and of course Hoomus (before it was spelled ‘hummus’). Adeeb said in the article, “The Arab-speaking countries boast of their couscous, or bulgur dishes; and sweet pastries are the delight of the Syrians” Imagine how exotic these were to Cincinnatians in the 1960s, as another Church community (St. Anthony in Farimount’s Littly Italy) had just introduced us to ‘pizza pie’ in the early 1950s! Back then the unusual ingredients like bulgur, tahinl, pine nuts and flat bread could be purchased at Trotta’s, Bilker’s and Pogue’s. Now, you get them at nearly every Kroger or Remke market.
As Cincinnati Greeks congregated around St Nicholas Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, the Lebanese and Palestinian Christian Arabs did the same around St. Anthony of Padua Marionite Christian Church in Walnut Hills. The Cincinnati Greeks showcase their food at the yearly Panegyri Festival. And the Cincinnati Italian Catholics of Sacred Heart Church do the same at their biannual Ravioli Dinner. The Arabs too have a long running St. Anthony Festival, where their native foods are showcased. In the 1960s this food festival was held at Kolping Grove, oddly enough, a German club, but recently its been held in the church basement. The Misleh’s have been highly involved in the food preparations at this annual food festival, keeping alive the recipes of Kaleel’s parents.
I first tasted kibbeh, the national dish of Lebanon in the Church basement of St. Anthony at their festival, nearly a decade ago. It’s a lamb and wheat dish that can be fixed In almost a dozen different ways. “If seven cooks prepare it,” Adeeb MIsleh said in the 1960s Enquirer article, “you’ll end up with seven different dishes.” A requirement for kibbeh is lean, tender lamb run through the grinder twice. It used to be pounded instead of ground. Seasoned with onion, a hint of cinnamon and basil, it’s then mixed with soaked cracked wheat or bulgur. One of the ways to eat this is uncooked, like steak tartare, which is how I had it at St. Anthony’s. Or it may be a type of meatloaf with a coarse ground lamb stuffing as the Mislehs served it at El Arab. It even might become meatballs in yogurt. You might even go so far as to call it “Lebanese Goetta” – a meat product extended with grain.
St. Anthony’s Taste of Lebanon festival is coming up this year on June 12, the same month as St. Nick’s Greek Panegyri festival. We’re so lucky to have these great food festivals in our city and I plan to be chowing down at both. I say ‘Nushkurr Allah’ – ‘Thank God ‘ for the Misleh’s and their contribution to Cincinnati food.