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A Bit of the 'Shouk' Spices Up Queen Village

May 11, 2006 By:
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Yis Tigay
Ever since spending his sophomore semester abroad in Egypt nearly a decade ago, Yis Tigay has dreamed of bringing a part of the Middle East back to Philadelphia.

That dream came to fruition in February when he and a business partner opened Shouk, a restaurant in Philadelphia that combines the cultures of Egypt with the tastes of Israel.

"There are tons of hookah cafes in Egypt," said Tigay, referring to places where men and women socialize and smoke fruit-flavored tobacco out of a water pipe. "It's the basis of their social life - a very visible, cultural element - and I thought it would be cool to bring it to America."

Tigay opened up the Queen Village restaurant, its name in Hebrew meaning an open-air market or bazaar. But the 28-year-old knew that for his concept to be successful, he'd have to cater to American culture, too.

"I wanted to offer food that I thought was the best reflection of the Middle East," explained Tigay, who last year married an Israeli. "Israeli food is an amazing mix of a lot of different types of cuisine from the region. I think it's the best food in the world, with the best combination of spices and flavors."

Tigay's obsession with all things Middle Eastern started long before his time in Egypt. Both of his parents are American, but his father, Jeffrey Tigay, a Conservative rabbi and professor of Ancient Near East studies at the University of Pennsylvania, did his research in Israel. His mother, Helene Tigay, heads the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education in Melrose Park.

Consequently, as a child, Tigay spent long periods of time in the Jewish state. When not in Israel, he lived in Wynnewood, attending Akiba Hebrew Academy in Merion Station before going on to major in Arabic studies at Penn.

After doing a short stint in graphic design in New York, Tigay returned to the university for a master's degree in Arabic.

"After one year in the program, I realized I didn't want to be in academia, and I didn't want to do government work because that was too academic," said the Center City resident. "I wanted to build or create Middle Eastern culture, instead of studying it."

With essentially no experience in the restaurant biz, Tigay wound up working with Marathon Grill - with several establishments scattered around Philadelphia - to learn the ins and outs of the food industry. At the University City location, he ended up meeting his eventual business partner, Georgia Vass, testing the hookah concept weekly in Marathon's lounge area.

Led by a chef from Israel, Tigay's newest venture, which is not kosher, serves mezze, or appetizer-size portions; patrons are encouraged to order a large variety and share. The menu offers typical Middle Eastern foods like hummus, babaganoush and cous cous, as well as some more nontraditional fare like carrot dumplings or pomegranate-marinated chicken.

As for the smoking aspect of the restaurant, Tigay emphasized that the aromatic hookah tobacco doesn't have the same chemicals that cigarettes do, and therefore, the health risks aren't as severe.

"There are some people that will never smoke. It's not good for you. That's the reality," he contended. "The difference with hookah and cigarettes is no one is going to lug a hookah down to take a hookah break at work. If done in moderation, it's okay."

He also explained that the impending city legislation banning smoking in public places would not apply to him because more than 15 percent of sales is from tobacco, allowing him to let customers inhale on the premises.

While Tigay is focused on introducing aspects he loves about the Middle East to Philadelphians, he emphasized that given the highly charged nature of that part of the world, he doesn't plan to use the restaurant to make any political statements.

"One of my goals is that the restaurant should be a source of pride for Jews. I'd like to expose American Jews to Israeli culture as much as possible - via food, music or people."


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