Since 1986, May Chabene’s traiteur-épicerie has been a sure bet for homemade Lebanese specialties
The bottom of the rue de Bagnolet, just before it reaches the boulevard de Charonne and métro Alexandre Dumas, bustles at lunchtime. Pedestrians dart among cars, scooters, bicycles or the 76 bus to cross from one narrow sidewalk to the other thanks to – or despite – several crosswalks. They stop at the ATM or the tabac before queuing at one of the bakeries or traiteurs. Those waiting under the blue awning at number 21 have chosen an old standby: Alexi 20, the rue de Bagnolet’s go-to Lebanese traiteur-épicerie for some 35 years.
Owner May Chabene moved to the Charonne neighborhood and opened Alexi 20 in 1986 “by opportunity”. Born in Senegal to Lebanese parents, May lived in Africa and Lebanon before moving to France in 1983. “I came to the 20th because I had family who lived in the rue de Bagnolet. They were the ones who found me this place. They told me ‘This is what you can do for a job. Allez hop! Good luck!’ And that’s how it started.”
While the white lattice panels, tile floor and stools seem unchanged since the shop opened, May explains that Alexi 20 started as a fine foods store specialising in Lebanese products. At the time, Lebanon and its cuisine were misunderstood in France, May says. “I wanted to showcase our products and especially to showcase Lebanon because in 1986, there was a lot of terrorism there and people thought Lebanon was just terrorists. Nobody knew what Lebanese products were.”
The name of her shop is “a bit sentimental”, she says: a reference to Alexandre Dumas, the Greek King Alexander and the 20th arrondissement. “Plus I was ambitious, I wanted to open a chain of 20 Alexis, but it didn’t work,” she says with a laugh.
As major grocery chains opened on the street, May began scaling back her grocery and bulk foods section and offering homemade prepared foods. “At first, my mother did the cooking. Then my sister-in-law Amal took over in 1990. I help in the kitchen, but I’m more of a relationship person. I mostly handle the buffet,” she explains, adding that what she likes most about her job is the human contact. She’s direct, tutoyering everyone, but polite, as the Honorary Diploma of French Courtesy hanging over the cash register attests.
She has “a lot of regulars. It used to be more cosmopolitan, but I still have a lot of artists, singers, musicians, architects, people who work in the neighborhood. Then the former kids grew up, and had kids. And then those kids grew up.
When the newcomers need help navigating the trays of savory fritters or sweet pastries, May guides them. “First, I ask them if they are vegetarian, or allergic to certain things, or if they eat everything. I don’t have any preferences. It just depends on how you want to eat lunch, that’s all,” she says matter-of-factly.
Customers choose among mezze, nine sandwiches or a plat du jour such as Lebanese-style stuffed tomatoes or eggplant, lamb with okra, or lentil moussaka. May and Amal also do fusion cooking: “We even prepare red beans like a Lebanese-style chili con carne or we make chicken curry our way,” says May. For dessert, they prepare a selection of sweets like baklava, semolina maamoul cookies and special pastries for Epiphany, Christmas and St. Barbara’s Day.
“Lebanese cuisine is a Mediterranean cuisine. You go to any of the countries of the Ottoman Empire and you find the same thing, more or less. But tabbouleh and kibbeh are two main dishes from Lebanon. Lebanese tabbouleh is a parsley base, with tomatoes and bulgur. The tabbouleh we find in France have a couscous base, and couscous doesn’t exist in Lebanon,” she explains, “Kibbeh are balls of wheat and meat with seven spices (cinnamon, allspice, cloves, coriander, pepper, anise and nutmeg) and cumin.”
“Right now, sandwiches sell the best,” she says. A “mixte” sandwich, for example, starts with two pitas slathered with hummus and several spoonfuls of either tabbouleh, fattoush (crudités with sumac and toasted bread) or carrot-cabbage salad (“for people who don’t like green”). May tops this with crumbled falafel and kefta and slices of grilled eggplant before adding a final dash of tahini.
These days, everything is carefully wrapped up to go. And May is nostalgic about the pre-Covid atmosphere when groups of friends would meet for lunch around Alexi 20’s tall tables. “I hope things will pick back up,” she says.
21 rue de Bagnolet
Métro Alexandre Dumas