By Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor Published Apr 06, 2021 at 11:03 AM

There’s a new restaurant in the works that aims to showcase and celebrate the diversity of cuisines served in the Levant region. 

Middle East Side is the name of the new concept, which will focus on dishes inspired by Eastern Mediterranean countries, including Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Jordan.

At the helm is Chef John Chandler, longtime chef and current sous chef at Amilinda, 315 E Wisconsin Ave., who will be stepping down from his role at the popular Downtown restaurant on April 10 to devote his energy to Middle East Side and his upcoming pop-up series on April 12, 18 and 25.

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But Chandler says he's approaching the launch with an abundance of caution.

“These are tough times to launch a new concept,” he says. “So we’ll be using the pop-ups, not only to give folks a taste of Middle East Side, but also to iron out some of the kinks and really zero in on some of the dishes people really like.”

From there, he says, he plans to launch lunch service at Amilinda beginning May 4th, with carry-out and delivery available Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. 

Amilinda chef and owner Gregory Leon, who has generously offered his restaurant to Chandler during off-hours, says he’d love to see the Middle East Side concept take off. 

“If it wasn’t for Nell [Benton] allowing us to pop-up at The National, Amilinda wouldn’t exist,” he says. “And we’ve always said we’d pay that forward. Ultimately, John is talented and he needs to go and do his own thing. He needed a push to make that happen, and I was happy to support him.”

From California to the Middle East Side

Chandler was born and raised in Northern California, where he reaped the benefits of a rich culinary inheritance gleaned from both his mother (whose family is from Mexico) and his father (who was raised in the Southern U.S.).

“I had this amazing upbringing filled with all of this amazing food,” says Chandler. “Both of my parents worked in the restaurant industry. And, growing up,  food always equalled love.”

Chandler says that, despite being from an industry family, restaurant work wasn’t his first choice as he moved away from home. Instead, he says, he pursued a variety of other jobs, including retail sales.

While he was working, met Leon, who was employed as a chef in the San Francisco area.

“Greg [Leon] had friends who worked in all of these fantastic restaurants,” says Chandler. “And he’d drag me around town to eat at all of these amazing places.”

The time spent with Leon, he says, sparked his interest in restaurant work; and, even as he and Leon drifted apart, the thought of pursuing a career in the industry stuck. At the age of 30, he enrolled at the Western Culinary Institute in Oregon.  From there, his culinary career began, beginning at restaurants like McCormick and Schmick's, but eventually landing at Mamoon, a new fine dining restaurant in Seattle owned by Wassef and Racha Haroun which specializes in foods from Syria, Persia and Lebanon.

“While I was working there – as both a line cook and later a pastry chef – I fell in love with the spices, the flavor profiles,” Chandler says. “And the more I learned about Levantine food, the more I wanted to learn.”

Ten years after the two friends lost touch, Chandler says a post from Leon popped up in his Facebook feed. The two reconnected and he came to Milwaukee for a visit.

“The West Coast culinary scene is very cut-throat.” Chandler says. “But when I came to Milwaukee, I fell in love with how nice everyone was. Everything about Milwaukee really appealed to me… the food, the people. I remember being fresh off the plane and visiting The Vanguard in Bay View. I was blown away.”

On a return visit about a year later, Leon asked Chandler if he’d like to move to Milwaukee.

“That was three years ago,” says Chandler, “And I’ve been here ever since. I’ve worked in a variety of restaurants here, including at Buckleys with Chef Van Luu, which was amazing. And I still love it here. I think I love it more and more every day.”

Chandler says he’s always hoped to own his own restaurant, but until he moved to the Cream City, he didn’t fully know if it was possible. 

“For a long time, I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted my restaurant to look like,” he says. “But I knew I wanted to do something where I could change out my menu, maybe even as often as every month. After I designed the menu for our sold-out Lebanese street food pop-up in January, it really hit me. The Levantine region is so amazing. The flavors resonate. It’s food I love to eat and love to cook. And – over time, I’ve gotten to know it well enough that I  can really get creative with it.” 

Chandler says he’s excited to embark on his new journey. 

“I’m starting with the Lebanese street food,” he says. “But I can’t wait to explore places like Syria, North Africa, Persia and Iran.”

What folks won't find, he says are dishes like shawarma, falafel and tabbouli.

"There are plenty of restaurants that make these items extremely well," he says. "So my goal is to showcase the wealth of other options that the Middle East offers."

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Get a taste: April pop-ups

The Middle East Side pop-ups will take place at Amilinda on three dates: Monday, April 12 from 3 to 7 p.m.; Sunday, April 18 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; and Sunday, April 25 from from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. 

Dishes will be available for pre-order online at amilinda.com and can be picked up at the restaurant.

A focal point of the menu will be on man’noushe (Lebanese flatbread) topped with a variety of ingredients including 

  • olive oil and za’atar 
  • lahm bi ajeen (ground beef, tomatoes, onion and red pepper paste) 
  • vegetarian (tomato, bell peppers, onion, sumac and parsley)
  • cheese (kashkaval cheese, tomato and onion)
  • chicken (marinated in lemon and garlic) and hummus

There will also be harra frites (fries topped with aleppo peppers, sumac, harissa, parsley, cilantro and dill) served “sandwich style”: piled on pieces of man’noushe, much like the street-style Lebanese batata harra.

On the sweeter side, guests can also order Lebanese-style baklava with pistachios, walnuts, orange blossom and rose waters and simple syrup; and kataifi, a dessert made from shredded phyllo dough, sweet cheese, pistachios, orange blossom and rose waters and simple syrup.

"I'm focusing on easy-to-eat street food," says Chandler. "But my menus will change.  I'm really excited for the farmers markets this summer; I can't wait to take inspiration from all the fresh produce."

For more information, follow the Middle East Side on Facebook and Instagram. You can also sign up for their mailing list at  middleeastsidemke.com.

Lori Fredrich Senior Writer & Dining Editor

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.