Cowboy bars and burrito joints, check. Wine tasting rooms and steakhouses, of course. Italian restaurants and homespun bakeries, sure. These all make the Santa Ynez Valley go ‘round.
But falafel and shawarma sold by a Syrian family in a pool hall with country tunes on the radio and sports shows on TV? This is the daily scene at Santa Ynez Billiards & Café, and it’s a thoroughly enjoyable experience, blending distinctive spices, authentic cooking, and genuine smiles with that satisfying sense of stumbling upon a secret that’s hiding in plain sight.
“We always wanted to open our own restaurant,” explains Amal Abdulaziz, as a batch of yogurt gurgles in the kitchen. “But we waited until our kids got older.” The mother of three — 34-year-old son is a Boeing engineer; 19-year-old daughter just graduated from Santa Ynez High and is attending SBCC — runs the restaurant with her husband, Riyad “Ray” Abdulaziz, while their 28-year-old son, Matt Abdulaziz, handles front-of-house operations, namely the walk-up orders, small bar, and sporadic billiard rentals.
They opened at this prominent Edison Street location —the primary entry portal to the town of Santa Ynez — in 2015 behind the safe veil of a pool hall that sold beer, wine, and a small menu of American bar food, with a handful of Middle Eastern specialties. The latter didn’t do well at first, but then Matt offered to comp orders of the chicken shawarma if guests weren’t satisfied. Suddenly, the biggest customer question was, “Where’s the chicken shawarma wrap?” and diners tuned into the rest of the menu too, including baba ganoush, tabouli, and lamb kabob, all hand-made by the couple.
“They’re significantly more popular,” said Matt of these items now. “We sell an ungodly amount of lentil soup.” They also still offer burgers, sandwiches, salads, chicken wings, and one of the better tri-tip sandwiches around — rubbed in a mix of Syrian and Santa Maria spices, grilled over red oak, then sliced into mouth-watering, paper-thin sheets. Today, very few people play pool anymore. “Now, it’s more of a restaurant,” said Matt. “All of our business is food.”
Originally from Homs, Syria, the Abdulaziz family immigrated in 1991 to Michigan, where Riyad managed a Middle Eastern spice company and Amal worked as a waitress. In 2015, they were lured to the Santa Ynez Valley by relatives who own many of the liquor stores in the region, including the Rio Market across the street from their restaurant.
Both Amal and Riyad started cooking at young ages with their respective grandmothers, and they looked back to those times to develop their recipes. “We put those together, and we came up with this delicious food,” said Amal.
Her descriptor is apt. The salads I’ve tried are crisp with just-plucked freshness: the tabouli’s parsley so recently hand-chopped that it remained stiff, with cracked wheat as a textural kick; the fattoush’s mix of lettuce, tomatoes, bell pepper, onions, and cucumbers downright refreshing thanks to the sumac/za’atar/lemon juice/garlic/black pepper dressing and crunchy pita shards.
The wraps are tightly wound in pliant pita bread — bought monthly from a Lebanese bakery in Ramona — into dense tubes that fit perfectly in your mouth, making for a tidy meal that delivers layers of savory and sour with each bite. The falafel, to which I added hummus, showcased golf-ball-sized balls of deep-fried chickpea and fava bean dough, while the lamb shawarma came alive in the multi-spice baharat seasoning. The key to both wraps are the house-pickled turnips and Persian cucumbers that give a tart snap to each chomp.
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Compared to many shawarma shops that pile meat slices on a vertical rotisserie to be shaved onto your pita, Riyad sautées each serving on its own. “The problem with the stick is that it dries out so quickly,” said Amal of that traditional preparation. “This is all made-to-order, and it’s more juicy.”
For kabobs, I opted for chicken, which is probably the most approachable Mediterranean dish on the menu: simply breast chunks, spiced gently, charred lightly, and served with an addictively buttery rice pilaf, a couple sheets of pita, red onion slivers, and a side of garlic paste. I opted for the spicy garlic paste, an off-menu option that adds jalapeño to the mix, though it’s really still the potent garlic that powers the kick on this condiment. This dish made excellent leftovers two days later as well.
Credit: Carl Perry
All of that comes at modest price points: around $6 for soups and apps, $10 for wraps and salads, and $15 or so for plates. “It’s significantly cheaper than anywhere else around here,” said Matt. Meanwhile, the wine list is entirely Santa Barbara County — few restaurants can truly claim that — and the beers lean local with bigger brands as well, which regulars enjoy through the specially priced mug club.
Given the success — to be clear, this place is no secret for many Santa Ynez Valley residents, particularly those in the restaurant and wine industries — the Abdulaziz family occasionally flirts with the idea of ditching the billiards, moving the bar, adding more tables, and doing a more refined level of service, which would be Amal’s long-term dream. But that would mean more employees, higher prices, and a different vibe.
“To the people in the valley, this is a family gathering place,” said Amal. “They come with their kids, who can play pool or foosball while they have a glass of wine or beer.”
Matt said that they’ll stick with this format for the time being. “People know us as the really funky, hidden-gem spot,” he said. “It kind of works.”
1000 Edison St., Santa Ynez; (805) 697-7109; santaynezbilliardsandcafe.com