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Let's Eat: It's all in the family for Sammouna — Midland’s only Middle-Eastern restaurant (5 photos)

Sammouna could soon close or at least move. If you haven’t tried their shawarma, donair or falafel you may want to go before it’s too late

The reason the food is so mouth-watering at Sammouna is not just because the recipes are all in the family, but it’s because everything behind the restaurant is all about family.

Ziad Al-Moussawi, owner of Sammouna, helped sponsor a family of Syrian refugees who happened to arrive in Canada as Midland’s only Middle-Eastern restaurant was opening in 2016. Now, two members of the Amin family — Zarmig and Khatchik help run the restaurant while Al-Moussawi works as a firefighter for Tiny’s fire department.

When you talk to the people who work at Sammouna you can hear the love they have for each other, for the food, and they quickly make you feel that way too. It happened to me when Khatchik offered my little one a sample of the lentil soup when we first came to Midland about a year and a half ago.

Lentil soup is a staple in the Middle Eastern diet, and I quickly learned that it’s something children are raised on. It’s a side option, and they will happily provide you a taste test. That’s how certain they are that you’ll love it too.

What brought the Sammouna family together from all over the world was Al-Moussawi, his mother’s recipes, and a desire to offer more food diversity to the people in this area.

Sammouna serves shawarma, falafel, donair, souvlaki, kebab (lamb or chicken), mushroom balls, and more, and it can all be made as wrap, salad, plate or even poutine.

It’s a large menu, and the souvlaki is cooked fresh and right before your eyes. If you order it, you’re asked if you’re okay to wait, because it’s raw on the skewer and flame-broiled while you salivate. You can taste the freshness, and dedication to quality in everything prepared on the menu.

Al-Moussawi visits his mother once a week at her home in Mississauga. 

“She’s our kind of quality control,” says Al-Moussawi “All the recipes are hers.”

She always asks Al-Moussawi to bring her something from the restaurant.

“She gave us shit a couple of times for cooking things the wrong way,” laughs Al-Moussawi.

All thanks and praise be to mother Al-Moussawi, her skillful hands in the kitchen, and her taste buds.

For Al-Moussawi, he says his favourite is everyone’s favourite: the shawarma. It’s easily one of the best things on the menu, and if you haven’t tried it yet, listen to the wisdom of the hilarious t-shirts the restaurant had made: “Shawarma is always the answer.”

While the spice mixture — typically some variation of garlic, allspice, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, turmeric, paprika, ginger, onion — is a little different now than it was when they first opened, the flavours are full and addictive.

If you prefer an herbivores life, Sammouna proudly serves a garlic sauce made dairy-free — making it a much-sought after vegan food item, and a rare find.

Again, you can trust in the truth of Sammouna’s t-shirts: “Friday, my other favourite F word after falafel.”

You can order falafel two ways here: traditional, made with chickpeas, or made with sweet potato.

As a person who has travelled, and tried falafel everywhere from Delhi to Bangkok to Paris and Osaka, this is the first time I’ve seen sweet potato falafel, and, while I’m not vegan, I could go vegan if it meant more of this kind of falafel in my life. Try it. I dare you not to like it.

Let’s talk about meat for one more minute. The donair, which was invented in Halifax, is not just delicious, it’s a real east coast donair with authentic sweet sauce.

When Sammouna first opened, Al-Moussawi didn’t like the donair he was getting from local suppliers. He remembered his travels to Canada’s east coast fondly, and how much he loved the donair there. So, he called a restaurant there, asked them for their supplier, and after tasting what was missing in the local supply, switched over and hasn’t looked back since.

Let me be clear, the donair at Sammouna is 100 percent an east coast donair, and is shipped in from the Maritimes along with the sweet sauce— such is Al-Moussawi’s commitment to providing excellent food.

If you haven’t made your way to what loyal customers, not just myself, argue is one of the best restaurants in Midland, you may have a limited time to get there.

Recently, Sammouna was evicted from its current location beside Midland’s Huronia Mall. Sammouna has until the end of April to vacate its storefront location. Al-Moussawi was told that a “AAA” corporation was moving into the space.

When he approached the CEO of the company that owns the Huronia Mall and explained that he had to take out a second mortgage on his home to keep the restaurant running through the pandemic. He was told the usual: it’s business, not personal.

As a restaurant owner, firefighter, former soldier, political refugee, and cancer survivor, Al-Moussawi is direct.

“I survived Sadam. I survived being a political prisoner during Sadam’s regime. I landed on my feet. I survived cancer. I‘m healthy and cancer-free. I’ll land on my feet. I’ll survive this,” says the stalwart service man.

Al-Moussawi explains that service is in his family — his wife is a nurse practitioner, his son a pharmacist technician, and his daughter is a nurse.

As a firefighter himself, Al-Moussawi doesn’t skip a beat when he says, “I love every single person in Midland. That’s why I’m a firefighter. I would easily sacrifice my life to save someone in this town.”

Since opening, Sammouna has offered a 10 percent discount to first responders, and they regularly have specials for nurses’ appreciation week.

“I think they deserve it,” says Al-Moussawi.

It is fitting that a family of service-minded people came together to serve some of the best food in this town to others.

Talk to anyone who works at Sammouna and they’ll tell you they love working there.

“I don’t want to work for anyone else. He’s the best boss,” says Kenady Clement who has worked at Sammouna for two years. 

“If only people could hear how much this place means to this town, maybe we could stay.”

Al-Moussawi is hard at work looking for a new location, and remains hopeful that they’ll find somewhere new to call home.

“There were many challenges in my life, and I survived them, and I landed on my feet,” he says, seemingly unphased by the challenge presented in having less than a month to find a new location for his restaurant.

“It took me seven years to sponsor my parents, two brothers and three sisters, because they were all adults, but they are all here and happy.”

What concerns him most is that this is happening to small businesses, and the company that owns the mall is not local.

“I may go into debt for the next ten or twenty years trying to build another restaurant because a large corporation wanted to make more money,” he says. 

“I don’t want to lose my staff,” says Al-Moussawi, “I have awesome staff.”

You can hear the passion in his voice when he talks about the food, the people, the town, and that makes the name of the restaurant so very fitting.

Sammouna is the plural of sammoun which is a diamond-shaped bread from Iraq. “You crack it open and load everything in it,” says Al-Moussawi. His plan was to build an oven, and start making sammoun to serve in the restaurant.

It seems he created a family in the restaurant itself that’s like one large piece of sammoun cracked open and loaded with food, family and love.