The food scene in the greater Mobile region is ripe with institutions of such importance to me that I don’t know if I’d hang around if some of them weren’t there. Not only restaurants, but farmers’ markets, specialty shops, and a wealth of wonderful food events in Mobile and surrounding counties keep my hat hanging in the Midtown area. I can’t imagine what life here would be without oldies that paved the way like Wintzell’s, Taste of Mobile, Callaghan’s, ACS Chili Cook Off or Osman’s.

Newer mainstays such as St. Mary’s Crawfish and Bluegrass Extravaganza, Royal Scam, Dauphin Island Gumbo Cook Off and Hungry Owl would also break my stride if they up and disappeared. But there is one often-overlooked place that would punch me in the gut if it went away. One I believe to be in the Top 10 most important food places in Mobile, and that is Food Pak International.

Food Pak has a large inventory of ethnic food and drink that is hard to find elsewhere in the city.

Food Pak has a large inventory of ethnic food and drink that is hard to find elsewhere in the city.

Located on Old Shell Road, east of USA and West of Spring Hill College, I’ve randomly stopped by Food Pak for years. Not enough times to be honest. I’m usually in there to grab what may be our area’s best muffaletta. When in town my brother Alecs cannot avoid its tractor beam, either. The place is important for that sandwich alone, but it is even more important as an international grocery.

Coolers full of cheeses, hard-to-find beers, impossible to find soda pops and frozen goods line at least a fourth of the store’s perimeter. An impressive selection of wine adds to the allure of this unassuming shop, and if your recipe calls for something you’ve never heard of I’m sure Food Pak has it.

I’m not really in the business of reviewing grocery stores (I could if you wish), so my mission here is strictly deli in nature. I’ve already mentioned the muffaletta ($11.25 per whole). It’s a story all on its own. The bread is authentic, the olive salad is of high quality and the meat is very good.

I used to complain about inferior bread in sub-par muffalettas, but these days most people get that right. The latest trend in muff making error is crappy meat selection. Who ever heard of putting thick-sliced bologna on a sandwich of such importance? It happens, but not at Food Pak. They deliver the proper goods on what can be considered a great traditional muffaletta with prosciutto, salami and I believe mortadella.

To gain a little perspective of the spices and flavors of our beloved Food Pak one must understand where they are coming from. Reza Hejazi came to the United States as an engineering student from Iran and brought with him the scents and tastes from his father’s bakery and grocery shop. The flavor is unmistakable in the gyro ($6.50). That’s a sandwich most of us are familiar with. But the coarsely chopped veggies and tzatziki sauce have a spice I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s a subtle twist on a Mediterranean favorite. That same flavor is found in the falafel ($6.50). If you are a fan of falafel do not miss out on this one.

The muffaletta at Food Pak may be the best in Mobile.

The muffaletta at Food Pak may be the best in Mobile.

Of all my visits I have not ventured much farther than the sandwich board. Hey, if it works stick with it. But there are plenty of sides sold by the pound that will make your taste buds do the happy dance. Let’s start with good old-fashioned hummus ($6.75 per pound). With or without hot sauce? With, please. Let me tell you the faint of heart should ask for the hot sauce on the side. It’s a great chili sauce that pairs well with a smooth hummus texture and begs for a beer. Today I chose the Hellenic lager Mythos ($2.20). I chose wisely.

Next up was the pickled eggplant dip ($7 per pound). Well I had to try it. I never had pickled eggplant before. This one is done up in balsamic vinegar with red bell pepper and onion, and could go great with some goat cheese and toast points. It was even amazing with plain old Wheat Thins.

The most important side of the day was the feta cheese dip ($11 per pound). I bought almost 10 bucks worth. Heavenly. Not at all oily, it also isn’t as rich as I had expected it to be. If you happen to be on a diet avoid this one like the plague. You can’t stay away from it. I stuffed some of this into cherry tomatoes and fell deeper in love.

There are plenty more things to sample but I am stuffed. My friend Sam Anthony drives from Tillman’s Corner just to get the tabbouleh. That’s powerful stuff. Dates, fancy olive oil, teas, nuts, every kind of rice I could think of, all under one roof is enough to get others to drive from even farther away.

I can’t imagine a Mobile without Food Pak International. Consider yourself lucky to have such a shop in this town. Yes, there is a deli counter where you can dine in, but the strong point is takeout. Fresh-made muffalettas are better the next day anyway, right? This place fills a void that many larger cities don’t fill. Keep up the good work. We don’t know what we’d do without you.

Food Pak International Foods
5150 Old Shell Rd.
Mobile, AL 36608
(251) 341-1497