July 12, 2017

John Benjo; photo by Gordon Wenzel
Veteran cook and island aficionado John Benjo in front of his Market Street restaurant.

Diversifying restaurant scene adds panache to Lewisburg dining

By Sherri Kimmel • Photography by Gordon Wenzel

When Bill Conley, vice president for enrollment management, explains the downtown Lewisburg attractions to future Bucknell students and parents, he points out the presence of the Barnes & Noble at Bucknell University bookstore but also "the high-quality, owner-operated venues. I say, 'Please don't eat at a chain restaurant. While you're here, get a taste of the variety and quality.' " Restaurant owners in Lewisburg, he tells prospects, are "invested in giving a great experience."

While Elizabeth's on Market Street and Reba and Pancho's on Route 45, which serve upscale American food, have been go-to local eateries for more than a decade, according to Conley, in the last several years there has been an infusion of global tastes to the Lewisburg palate.

Bucknell's international students — about 6 percent of the study body, with the majority coming from China — especially appreciate the downtown restaurants Siam, which serves Thai food, and Sushihanna, which offers Japanese fare. Two Chinese restaurants, Peking Garden and Yung Ting, outside the main thoroughfare, enjoy a brisk takeout trade. And another Japanese restaurant, Fuji Steakhouse, recently opened near Country Cupboard.

Chantana Thai, which operates a food truck in Lewisburg, also is popular with international students, according to Jennifer Figueroa, director of international student services. The presence of international restaurants may not be an important factor in yielding students from other lands, "but once they get here, it's important," she says.

If students don't feel like venturing off campus for international food, they can find an increasing array in the Bostwick Marketplace. Or they can cook their own in South Campus Apartments or other apartment-style residences with en suite kitchens on campus, Figueroa says. She notes that grocers such as Weis Markets have done a better job of stocking international ingredients in recent years, but students also order items through Amazon.

"Bring your spices with you," Marylyn Scott, senior associate dean of admissions, also advises incoming international students. During a recent virtual open house, a panel of current international students fielded questions that included one about the variety of international eating options in Lewisburg. The students mentioned Siam, Caribbean Connection and Sushihanna as close-to-campus options, she says. "They also referenced how Bostwick provides options."

Scott also notes that faculty and staff with international backgrounds (such as herself — she's from Jamaica) offer to cook for students. "They're responding to the desire to give them something beyond American fare," she says. "It's a great opportunity to share with one another."

Scott also describes special events and festivals that student groups, such as the Caribbean, Asian and African student associations, sponsor. "They cook for one another, and for their big bashes they bring in caterers from D.C. or New York City to provide authentic food for the entire community," she explains.

Says Conley, "It's like everything we do at Bucknell. We do it broadly, and we do it well."


Nisarat "Poy" Premjai

"This is my dream here," says Nisarat "Poy" Premjai, gesturing around the inviting dining room of Siam, the Thai restaurant she and her husband, Adrian Pinter '03, own and manage on Market Street in Lewisburg.

Most nights, sidewalk strollers glance in to see nearly every table filled with smiling diners plunging chopsticks or forks into tasty arrangements of carefully spiced vegetables and tofu, chicken or seafood.

"My husband and I have the same diet [as is served at Siam]," says Premjai. "No MSG, and we don't have red meat. We offer a lot of gluten-free, vegetarian dishes and brown rice. We are trying to create a healthy menu."

The menu has resonated with Bucknellians. Visiting alumni are delighted to discover Thai food has found a foothold in their old haunt, and families flock to the restaurant, especially during Family Weekend and New Student Orientation — Siam's busiest time, according to Premjai.

Not only is Bucknell central to Siam's success, but it is also key to its origin. In 2003, Premjai was studying English in northern Thailand when she met Pinter, a volunteer English teacher at her university. Pinter is a Lewisburg native whose father is Charles Pinter, professor emeritus of mathematics.

Having already fulfilled her mother's dream — to earn an English education degree — Premjai decided to return with Pinter to the United States and chase her own lifelong dream — owning a restaurant.

Growing up in a matriarchal household with grandmas and aunties always busy in the kitchen, Premjai loved to cook from a young age. Her grandmother owns a Thai restaurant in Bangkok, and Premjai helped out during summer breaks from school.

Premjai moved to Lewisburg in 2008, and in August 2011, opened Siam in a smaller space a few doors from her present location. Bucknell's Small Business Development Center (SBDC) helped her develop a business plan, and when, in 2013, she decided to buy the building where she now lives upstairs and operates her restaurant downstairs, she again turned to the center. "The SBDC was very helpful; they helped me get a loan from Mifflinburg Bank," she says.

While some of Siam's recipes are based on the food she enjoyed at home, Premjai gives her own twist to well-known Thai dishes like Pad Thai by using tamarind juice instead of vinegar. Cooking classes and visits to her homeland for a few weeks every year also provide inspiration for Premjai, who still cooks at Siam, along with three other cooks, one from Thailand and two from Vietnam.

Recently, Siam began offering a delivery service in Lewisburg, and Premjai is mulling over plans to add more seating. "Sometimes on weekends we have to turn people away, and we can't take reservations for big parties."

She appreciates the support she's received from the Lewisburg community and reciprocates by buying local ingredients. That means fresh produce from the Wednesday Farmers Market to supplement her own small garden with its Thai basel, eggplant, Thai chili peppers, cilantro and green onions.

Now six years into realizing her dream, Premjai recalls the days she was preparing to open Siam at is original location. "People would pass by and say, 'Thai food? When will you open?' They'd been waiting for a restaurant like this to come to Lewisburg for a long time. I'm glad I made these people happy."

— Sherri Kimmel


Afaf and Ali Kabalan
Afaf and Ali Kabalan

Ali Kabalan, a mechanical engineer turned Middle Eastern rug and art importer turned local Lebanese food purveyor, likes to describe his journey from Beirut, Lebanon, to Lewisburg as a destiny 30 years in the making.

He first came to the United States in the 1980s for graduate school, but was summoned home when his father fell ill. It wasn't until last year that another important person — his young grandson — lured him back.

Kabalan explains with a smile that helping daughter Amal Kabalan , professor of electrical & computer engineering, care for her baby was the spark that propelled him and wife Afaf to venture from Lebanon to Lewisburg. Having a son who teaches at Villanova University and a daughter who lives in Washington, D.C., added to the appeal for this family of engineers.

But while caring for their grandchild is fulfilling, the Kabalans, used to a bustling international city, sought another outlet for their abundant

energy. Afaf says, "I have always enjoyed cooking for children, friends and for parties, but I never had my own restaurant or sold my food."

Then son-in-law David Heayn proposed an intriguing idea. How about renting a space in the Wednesday Farmers Market on Fairground Road? When Heayn contacted the market's manager, he discovered a counter space was up for rent.

And so Fafa's Kitchen came to find itself wedged between Troutman Meats and the Country Cupboard along the south wall of the market. There, customers bored by the usual cheeseburgers and soft pretzels can sample the Kabalans' tabbouleh, kibbe, hummus, grape leaves, falafel and baba ghanoush, or purchase Lebanese spices, tahini and olive oil.

Every Wednesday the couple wakes up at 3 or 4 a.m. to begin prepping the food. They arrive at the market at 8 a.m. to fry the falafel and assemble the other dishes. Customers start flowing in by 9 a.m. to find the Kabalans waiting with broad smiles and a desire to chat.

Afaf says, "I like to connect with the people. The American people like to try new things. They ask us about our food and tell me it is very, very delicious." She believes she has repeat customers because "the food is really fresh."

Afaf does make some concessions to American tastes, reducing the amount of garlic, black pepper and cumin she uses in some dishes. "But I keep the spirit of Lebanese tabbouleh," she says.

Like Afaf, Ali enjoys the cross-cultural opportunities the business provides them. "People come in and say, 'What is falafel?' We are introducing people to new things — it is not just a business," he says. "I can say, 'Today 10 people learned about tabbouleh.' People ask me, 'How should I use olive oil?' My response is, 'Always.' Our food is good and healthy."

The Kabalans are eager to expand their business, since the Farmers Market is open only once a week. The countertop they rent also is too small to allow them to produce much food. Ultimately, they would like to own a Middle Eastern grocery and deli in Lewisburg.

And while Bucknell brought them to central Pennsylvania to assist their professor daughter, the University is also the key to their successful adjustment as immigrants and businesspeople.

"Bucknell is behind everything here," says Ali. "It is what keeps the town busy. It is not just the mind, but the heart of the town."

— Sherri Kimmel


Davide Della Pietra
Davide Della Pietra

Davide Della Pietra can tell his espresso apart from its Starbucks counterpart blindfolded. The difference is in the kick, says the Milan, Italy, native and owner of Amami Kitchen and Espresso Bar.

"My espresso here — I notice," Della Pietra says. "I drink a lot of coffee, but I still have to be careful about how late in the day I drink this coffee."

The reason for the extra kick is that Della Pietra buys his espresso from Segafredo, one of the oldest roasters in Italy, which uses a blend of Arabica and the less expensive but higher caffeine Robusta beans. While Robusta may be shunned by most American coffee roasters, Della Pietra says Italians have long craved the extra caffeine jolt the beans provide.

He brews his espresso with a machine and grinder by Nuova Simonelli, regularly used in barista championships. And to top off your authentic espresso experience, it doesn't hurt to be served by someone with an accent like his, Della Pietra says. "I want people to learn because it's my heritage, but it's also like a marketing tool — you will trust me more because I have an Italian accent," he says.

Alongside traditional espressos, cappuccinos and a few nods to American tastes like dirty chai, Della Pietra serves a limited menu of panini, salads and breakfast staples made fresh with local ingredients, as well as a rotating menu of drip coffees.

"It's a portfolio of coffee that people can try and eventually discover their favorite," he says.

For as fastidious as he is about his product, Della Pietra didn't want Amami — which means "love me" in Italian — to feel stuffy. He wants his customers to linger, and designed the cozy 800 square feet, including the kitchen, with a "casual chic" motif that encourages comfort.

Some walls are covered in reclaimed barnwood, others with a sumptuous black-on-black patterned wallpaper. Above is a hammered tin ceiling that was covered by a drop ceiling for decades before Della Pietra poked through and rediscovered it. The overall effect is a lived-in quality that Amami has had since opening in January 2015.

"Even when it was new it felt like it had been here a long time already," Della Pietra says. "Some places that open feel too new, and it takes a couple years for them to acquire their identity, their character, whereas here I felt it was perfect."

Della Pietra, who also owns the Kind Café in Selinsgrove, says his first two years in Lewisburg have been much more successful than he'd anticipated. On a sunny spring afternoon you're likely to find a crowd not only inside, but — in true café fashion — idling outside on the corner of Market Street and the Buffalo Valley Rail Trail. The owner attributes much of his success to the Bucknell community. Many Bucknell students come from more urban areas, and the communal atmosphere and swift service at Amami probably feel like home to many, he says.

"I have the sensation that people who come here feel familiar with the food and style," Della Pietra says. "This could be in a city — I feel a lot of the students have that impression of this place."

— Matt Hughes


John Benjo
John Benjo

\Blame Bob Marley. Introduced to the iconic Jamaican reggae artist at age 11, John Benjo gravitated toward Caribbean culture from that point on. When a few years later he became an unofficial member of a Puerto Rican family in Chester, Pa., the fix was in. His head has been in the islands ever since.

In January 2016, the veteran cook ("I've been in the kitchen since I was 14," he confesses) decided to bring his own "comfort food" to Lewisburg. Caribbean Connection on Market Street is the candy-colored corner restaurant a few doors down from another ethnic restaurant, Siam. The dishes Benjo crafts are Spanish- and Jamaican-inspired traditional food that he's enjoyed with family and friends.

"Some of it is just too good to change," he says. "It's simple, basic grandma food." He's added a few of his own tweaks. For instance, falafel is normally made with Middle Eastern spices. Benjo instead infuses the chickpea batter with Caribbean spices and herbs.

"The neat thing about the islands is there is such a mix of cultures," he says. "It's a real melting pot, with Jamaica getting some of its influences from England, Puerto Rico getting some from Spain. And there's also French."

Benjo was compelled to relocate from Philadelphia, where he cooked in high-end restaurants, to secure a better environment for his daughter. He had cooked in Lewisburg restaurants about a decade ago and was pleased to see Siam had opened, but felt Lewisburg could use another infusion of culture — "delicious food with good portions and prices in a relaxed environment." The soft reggae music, plank tables and murals that Benjo created ("global and bright," he calls it) achieve his aim, as does the food, which ranges from jerk and brown-stewed chicken to oxtail, curried goat and slow-roasted pork with lots of vegetables. Benjo, who lives on a small farm where he grows some of his vegetables, buys as much as he can from local producers, but has to import some of the meat and spices.

He finds that "people who are used to Indian, Israeli and soul food really appreciate" the food Caribbean Connection offers. Benjo also enjoys steady business from Bucknell professors, many of whom are from outside the United States or have traveled broadly. Retirees who have learned to love Caribbean food on cruises also stop by for his jerk chicken.

After 18 months in business, Benjo has plans to extend his hours, perhaps catering to late-night student hunger pangs. He also expects to add streetside seating this summer with domino

tables like the islanders use for outdoor games. "I want to bring culture to the area," he says. "I'm a big culture nut, and it's neat to see how other cultures interact with each other."

New offerings in the future include fresh juice drinks, smoothies and Jamaican and Cuban coffee. Leaning forward on his elbows as he sits at one of his colorful tables he says, "Who wouldn't want to start their day with reggae and bright colors?"

— Sherri Kimmel


Recipes and Videos

See the list of ingredients, read through the recipes and even watch these yummy dishes being made.

  • Yum Woon Sen Salad
  • Beet Hummus
  • Prosciutto and Burrata Panini
  • Roasted Yam Tart