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  • Tara Isabel Zia

The Good Kind of ‘Extra’

Reflections on a beloved local spot.

By Tara Isabel Zia

Illustration by Maca Hepp

When one thinks of the word ‘extra’, they might be inclined to think of a dramatic or unnecessary level of excess. But for Zaad, this characterization is not quite accurate. Located on 963 Amsterdam Ave, a mere five minute walk from campus, Zaad is a small Egyptian deli and grill discreetly tucked between a travel agency and laundromat.

Hosam Abdo, the owner and operator of the establishment, explains that Zaad means “extra or a lot” in Arabic. When I ask why he chose that name for his restaurant, he explains, adjusting his signature blue baseball cap, “I like it because the name means to serve more food to the people. More of everything.” Then, smiling slyly, he adds that Zaad actually has a double meaning: “When you are traveling on a short trip for a couple of days, your carry-on has the stuff you need. This is called your Zaad.”

The double-meaning of the word Zaad also represents Abdo’s restaurant: It is both ‘extra’ and just enough.

With a seating area the size of a John Jay single, one might wonder how the restaurant lives up to its name. Upon entry, however, Zaad’s size immediately becomes secondary to the warm smile and falafel sample each customer is offered. I gratefully accept both and finish the crisp, flavorful falafel in just two quick bites. The minimal wall space of Zaad proudly displays various Egyptian bills, posters of the Sphinx, and maps of Cairo, leaving little ambiguity about its origins.

Abdo immigrated from Egypt 24 years ago and has years of experience in the restaurant industry. Only briefly taking a break to get into the “business of limousines,” Zaad is his most recent invention. Abdo and his partners opened up shop during the pandemic–a time notorious for bringing countless small businesses to financial ruin. Despite a “slow” start, he notes that business picked up as the city came back to life. It now has a steady stream of regulars.

From the infamous falafel sandwich to chicken shawarma wraps to a classic burger, the small counter boasts an impressive range. My personal recommendation–seconded by Abdo– is the falafel sandwich: a tightly packed explosion of taste that puts any halal cart to shame. The fresh pita is warm and delicate, its insides brimming with flavor. With each bite, the gritty falafel mixes fresh lettuce, cubed tomato, and delightfully sour pickled onions, creating a delectable harmony. A thin layer of tahini and hummus mix at the base of the pita, which retains a soft pink color from the onions.

During our conversation, Abdo notes that my face is “not American,” and exclaims “I knew it!” when I divulge my Iranian origins. As we get to know each other, a call to prayer is projected through a speaker. I strain to hear him over the voices before I remember, with the scent of freshly cooked falafel lingering, that Ramadan has begun.

Hosam speaks politely, but without any particular animation about the day-to-day of running a small business in NYC. The conversation shifts, however, when I bring up one of my first trips to Zaad: the impetus for my article. I had been sitting at the table with a friend when an older man came in asking for food, indicating that he didn’t have any money. Before I knew it, a plastic bag was being handed over the counter, delivered with the same smile I had received upon entry. When I mention this exchange to Hosam, he breaks into a wide grin and exclaims, “That was me!”

“The business of food is life and help. If I welcome you to my home, the first thing I offer you is food, ” he explains. “I tell my guys, don’t give him just any food, not something you wish to throw out in the garbage. No. Give him a very nice sandwich, like he’s going to sell it. I want him to enjoy it,” he continues animatedly. “Because, you know, no one knows what’s going to happen tomorrow, we have to help each other.”

Zaad proves that Mediterranean hospitality is not a commodity or an aesthetic; it is a mindset. Such a mindset instructs Hosam to hand out free falafel to all customers and recognizes that people, regardless of their ability to pay, deserve good quality food. Zaad, while adapting to the pace and size constraints of the city, preserves a special tendril of Mediterranean values.

After our conversation, I make my way to Hungarian for a cup of tea to pair with the complimentary rice pudding gifted by Hosam. Drawing me out of my writing, a Columbia law student saddled with a legal tome and kind eyes strikes up conversation, and, before I know it, we’re chatting about Zaad. I pull out the rice pudding and offer him some: an act which I can tell surprises him. Regardless, he gleefully accepts. A little ‘extra,’ sure, but perhaps the best things are.


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