It’s Never Too Hot to Appreciate Fresh, Hot Bread
Latif Pastry in Khobar, Saudi Arabia
It’s early summer and the temperature here in Al-Khobar, on Saudi Arabia’s, east coast is already well above 110 Fahrenheit and the wind is thick with humidity from the nearby Gulf. We don’t have long before Dhuhr, when all the shops and restaurants will close for mid-day prayer, so we hurry through the outskirts of the souq, weaving around a hillock of Afghani rugs in front of an antiques dealer and down a narrow street of gold stores and electronics shops. By the time we make our way across the dusty lot where Al Shula mall used to be before it burned down, passing a fleet of extravagantly painted cargo trucks, we catch the first intoxicating scent of fresh baked bread wafting through the air.
Latif Pastry is a beloved Khobar institution, and my stomach always growls with hunger when I see their distinctive blue and white signage. Famous for decades for their manaeesh, flatbreads topped with a variety of ingredients, Latif is considered by many a necessary part of every Khobar shopping excursion. Like most restaurants here, Latif is divided into two sections: through the main door is the ‘singles’ section, a sunlit dining area for men only, and a side door labeled ‘family’ leads to a windowless room that offers privacy to female diners and their male family members. We enter through this door and make our way to the alcove that lets women place orders at the counter without being observed by the singles section.
I’ve been coming to Latif since I was a child and I can’t recall the menu ever changing—but why would it, when it’s already perfect? Saudi Arabia’s coastal areas have long been influenced by the ebb and flow of people from various cultures and this is reflected in the flavor combinations on offer. Reading from the big blue wall menu, I place our order– shakshuka, labneh, za’atar, and cheese, and labneh with honey for dessert. The cook stretches out balls of raw dough, piles them with fillings, scoops them up with a wooden paddle and then flings them with showman-like flair into the roaring oven. Moments later, out the bread comes, perfectly cooked and ready to be sliced, wrapped in tissue paper, and served piping hot on paper plates.
Settling at our table we dive in, fingers tearing at hot bread, cheese stretching out into long filaments, while a fine dusting of za’atar settles across the front of my abaya. My favorite, the za’atar, labneh, and cheese, is the perfect combination of flavors and textures. Soft bread folded around creamy labneh (rich strained yogurt), chewy Akkawi cheese (salty cheese with a texture similar to aged mozzarella), and the herbaceous crunch of za’atar (a spice blend that typically includes thyme, oregano, marjoram, sesame seeds, and sumac) is breakfast at its best.
Stuffed and content, I lean back in my chair, thinking that after a meal like this I can understand why people have been known to freeze bulk orders from Latif and stuff them inside their suitcases so they won’t have to go without their beloved cheese bread while overseas. Breakfasts this good are a rare thing.
Prince Saad Street/1st Street
Khobar, Saudi Arabia