I kept meaning to return to Mediterranean Island International Foods after restaurateur-chef Joel Wabeke posted on Facebook: “Keep Traders Joe’s, I’ll take Mediterranean Island.”
I planned to go when John Russo (of the famed G.B. Russo & Son Market) told me his wife Mary arrived before dawn to make the wonderfully spiced meze for Mediterranean Island’s deli case.
Then, when COVID-19 upended our world, I knew I had to remind Grand Rapids that Mediterranean Island delivers big, brilliant flavors from its deli case, fresh and colorful produce, and shelves full of amazing finds from this wide, wild world.
Standing in the middle of Mediterranean Island, at 4301 Kalamazoo Ave. SE, I watched Khalid Karadesh appear to be everywhere all at once, as customers orbit around him like planets — asking questions, looking for suggestions, sharing a laugh and thanking him for the genuine hospitality that shines this side of astonishing at his market and deli.
Karadesh co-owns Mediterranean Island with his brothers Hatem, Farouq and Marwan.
“In 1997, we decided to try this little store,” said Karadesh, who immigrated from Jordan to Chicago with his parents and siblings in 1972. “My family’s been in the supermarket business for years, and (we) grew up in a little market.”
There’s joy, discovery and adventure at Mediterranean Island — not the routine shopping of reaching for the same old, same old week after week. Here, you can buy olive oil from Lebanon (preferably Lebanon Valley Extra Virgin Olive Oil from the lush green mountains of Koura, Lebanon). Or, go for the store favorite — tagged to designate that it’s a fave — Partanna Extra Virgin Olive Oil that’s produced and packaged in Partanna, Sicily, only in October since 1916 by the Asaro family.
Spotting a pattern? Everything here has a backstory and Karadesh must have
a photographic memory because he rattles off these nuggets of knowledge without hesitation.
The honey section offers everything from local honey from White Cloud’s Big Prairie to the rarest manuka honey — at $50 a jar, it’s considered the ultimate superfood, first harvested by the Maori in New Zealand for its incredible anti-bacterial and healing properties.
The olives deserve love letters as they are big juicy beauties and nothing like the chain supermarket olive bars that are wizened, slimy and mushy. These gorgeous offerings — bright green Castelvetrano olives from Sicily, Greek kalamata olives, plump and meaty green Cerignola olives, mixed olives, feta-stuffed olives — nestle proudly in hand-painted ceramic platters and bowls that feed the imagination.
Behind the deli counter with Mary Russo
In the kitchen of Mediterranean Island International Foods, Mary Russo takes the humblest ingredients and turns them into tonight’s dinner. For her falafel, she starts by soaking raw chickpeas. For the mejadra, a Middle Eastern rice pilaf, she knows to sauté the onions separately to achieve the right color and texture. She grinds together whole spices that are sprinkled like fairy dust into the kibbe, stuffed grape leaves — with lamb or vegetarian — tabbouleh, Lebanese hashweh rice, stuffed cabbage rolls and arancini.
“I come here at 6 a.m. and I know I need to get everything ready to make sure this deli case is full. It’s so popular that we never have leftovers. I need to start fresh from scratch every morning,” Russo said. “By 4 or 5 o’clock, we run out of most things. I thank God when it’s 6 o’clock and we can close soon.”
To build a meze platter, Russo suggests starting with a mixture of salads, dips, pulses and warm bread.
Remember, mezze is for sharing so haul out your largest platter.
Cover your platter with a bowl each of hummus, baba ghanoush and tabbouleh. Try to find decorative bowls, no bigger than an 8-ounce portion. In clusters, add falafel, kibbe and/or grape leaves. Next, start a pile of olives and feta — really pile everything up into an inviting tower. A smidgen of cucumber sauce or labneh in a small bowl, or even a 4-ounce canning jar, is the icing on the cake, so to speak. Finally, warm pita bread is an excellent way to scoop up the deliciousness.
Nearby, humongous blocks of feta — double-cream feta, Greek feta, Bulgarian feta and feta olive salad, as well as labneh and French cheese blocks — tower like mini architectural feats.
Behind the deli and meat case, Khalid’s siblings work hard to present the delectable foods from the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. Farouq Karadesh takes charge of the primal cuts of lamb and goat carcasses — from the Islamic Slaughter House in Detroit. It’s all halal, which means the animal is slaughtered by hand and blessed accordingly.
“We go through a lot of products,” Farouq Karadesh said. “We’re very much unique, one of the few places that has halal meats.”
For Wabeke, who owns Littlebird and Early Bird restaurants, this splendor is impressive. “They carry a lot of items that cater to the immigrant and refugee population in that neighborhood, which only adds to the richness of culture and flavors,” he said. “I am asking about items I have never tried or heard of, so it adds to my knowledge and awareness. I do not get that kind of experience in other stores.”
For that reason, customers come from near and far.
“We go through a lot of products. We’re very much unique, one of the few places that has halal meats.”
“Saturday mornings you’ll hear about every language spoken by customers that you can imagine,” said Khalid Karadesh as we walk the aisle with ancient grains, legumes and dried beans.
Next, a delightful array of cookies, chocolates and sweets parades the length of another aisle, displaying wonderful finds such as Loacker Gardena Hazelnut Wafers, Turkey’s Eti Whola Digestive Cookies — similar to McVitie’s digestive — and the Milka company’s jeweled boxes of chocolates and confections. The teas and coffee number countless brands such as Jacobs Kronung Classic Coffee of Germany, Ahmad Tea Barooti Assam premium blend of Broken Assam Leaves with Golden Tips and yerba Mate tea brand Kharta Khadra from Argentina but beloved by Syrians.
Twenty-two years ago, Mediterranean Island started out in a smaller location in the Town and Country Plaza, at 44th Street and Kalamazoo Avenue SE, because the Karadesh family wanted to share the plethora of ingredients from the Middle East, introducing customers to black dried limes, turmeric root, coarsely ground Aleppo pepper, Turkish baldo rice, creamy Labne Kefir Cheese, Yemini green raisins and seemingly hundreds of different brands of grape leaves, olives, vinegary torshi (pickled vegetables) and aromatic spices.
You could say Khalid Karadesh is a grocery aficionado. When traveling, his first stop is never the touristy spots. No, he’s off to the supermarket, the corner store, the open-air market. “I love to know what others eat, to get ideas. I always want to know what’s new, what’s different. When my wife and I went to Mexico, our first stop was a supermarket. I wanted to see what they were doing. When in Italy, when in France, I go to the supermarkets, to see what they do firsthand.”
Since its opening, Mediterranean Island grew into a foodie destination. It’s now newly remodeled with an upmarket look including produce displays bursting with color and character, hardwood floors, colorful signage and shiny, sleek refrigerated cases. “This is really a fun place to get lost,” Khalid Karadesh said, encouragingly. “It’s really good here.”