When I first walk into Maha’s, it’s not like any restaurant I’ve ever been to. Cozy benches lined with colourful pillows; shelves brimming with trinkets and knick-knacks of all shapes and sizes; and a fridge plastered with photos, notes and magnets make the space feel more like a home kitchen than a restaurant. The antithesis to Toronto’s cold hospitality-group-backed eateries, Maha’s Egyptian Brunch is a family restaurant in every sense of the word.

“The restaurant is hands down an extension of our home,” says chef Monika Wahba. “It’s a reflection of who we are. It’s a very similar aesthetic to my house and my mom’s house and my brother’s.” The three family members run the restaurant together: Wahba’s mother Maha Barsoom is the head chef, and Wahba’s brother (and best friend) Mark is the restaurant’s barista.

The quirky, hodgepodge décor belies the care and quality that goes into the food — food that’s been enjoyed by the likes of Matty Matheson and Jamie Oliver, along with the many Torontonians who line up on weekends to get a mouthful of Egyptian brunch.

Since opening in 2014, Maha’s has grown in size and success, albeit unexpectedly. The concept for the restaurant was born out of desperation. When Wahba’s father, the primary earner for the family, was laid off from work, they didn’t know how they’d survive. “There was this fear in my mind: What’s going to happen next? I feel like, as humans, we go to the worst place possible. So, it was homelessness — that’s the end of this line unless you do something now,” says Wahba.

At the time, the siblings were working together at a coffee shop, and their mother was catering out of their home. Barsoom had always fantasized about opening a family restaurant, but it didn’t seem realistic until Wahba realized, “We have to do something as a family that would protect all of us.”

“I was going out a lot at the time, and mostly going out to brunch,” she says. That was when she realized that what was offered in the city at that time “didn’t come anywhere close to what my mom makes us for breakfast on the weekend.” The idea of Egyptian brunch clicked in her head. And so, the family opened Maha’s, providing them all with a place to work, and the opportunity to share their food and culture.

“It’s food that we’re passionate about, and very authentically replicated from home in this new space that’s offered to the public,” says Wahba, who is keen to educate people about her culture. “They don’t necessarily know modern-day Egypt and how the ancient history is so present and relevant to contemporary Egypt ... We are so proud of what we do here every day and so proud to be Egyptian and to share it with the rest of the world,” she adds.

Egyptian food Toronto | Monika Wahba of Maha's Egyptian Brunch

So far, Wahba has gone on to share her food with the rest of Canada, competing on the tenth season of Top Chef Canada, which aired this fall. When I sat down with Wahba, she had finished filming, but the outcome was yet to be revealed. Win or lose, it was an incredible experience for her.

“I had such a blast with the production [team] and my fellow chefs … Even though it was super-stressful at certain points, I never felt that kind of stress because I felt supported, validated and accepted,” she says. “Top Chef came at a beautiful time because coming back from it, I felt so invigorated, empowered and creatively stimulated.”

So, what’s up next? The sibling-best-friend duo has an Egyptian café in the works that’s slated to open shortly at Queen and Carlaw. Toronto is home to so many incredible cultural pockets, and Wahba’s brother Mark dreams of the city one day having its own Little Egypt. Perhaps Maha’s is just the beginning.

Cairo Classic

Egyptian food Toronto | Maha's Egyptian Brunch Cairo Classic

“The Cairo classic, which is the first dish on the menu, is my childhood breakfast table on one plate,” says Wahba. Her mother would always keep a bucket of cheese in the back of the fridge that she’d pull out every weekend and prepare with olive oil, tomatoes and mint. She would serve that with hard-boiled eggs, falafel and foole (slow-cooked fava beans). “Rich, poor — everyone eats foole. It’s such a hearty, delicious, earthy flavour. And my favourite way to eat it forever and ever was with a hard-boiled egg,” says Wahba.

“You’re supposed to eat the beans and the eggs together with the bread.” Open up the bread and make a sandwich, or use it to scoop everything up and bite into the falafel as you go. There’s even a special way to fold the bread for the optimal scoop, “It’s called wedne el otta, which translates to ‘ear of the cat,’” because the fold makes the bread resemble a cat’s ear.

“It’s very interactive, get messy, eat with your hands,” or it can be eaten very neatly, Wahba adds. “Culturally, we’re used to eating with our hands, so some people are able to do it and also remain so clean, and some people just slop it all. As long as you’ve got some paper towels handy, you’re good to go.”

Pharaoh’s Po’ Boy

Egyptian food Toronto | Maha's Egyptian Brunch Pharaoh's Po' Boy

“My grandfather used to take me to the sandwich shop in Cairo — as a kid, that was my favourite sandwich,” recalls Wahba. “Anytime we’d be out, he would take me to the shop and get this little deep-fried shrimp sandwich ... In Egypt, it’s actually a full round pita pocket. They cut the top and then stuff it with shrimp and tehina sauce.”

Wahba had to add her childhood favourite to the menu, but she made her own version of the sandwich. “Things just clicked and they went so naturally together,” she says. “I was like, oh, those deep-fried shrimp would look nice with a little drizzle on it, but I would plate it facing me, and then people would just be looking at it from the other way.” Eventually, Wahba got the plating right and the Pharaoh’s Po’ Boy became the delicious beauty it is today.


Egyptian food Toronto | Maha's Egyptian Brunch Shakshuka

“That was one of my favourite things to eat growing up: tomatoes and eggs. Oh my gosh,” exclaims Wahba. While many other Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures have their own version of shakshuka, Wahba’s is decidedly different — they’ve always eaten shakshuka with scrambled eggs rather than the more common poached eggs.

At first, they used to make it with just tomatoes, until Wahba thought of adding tomato sauce as well. “So everything kind of developed to reach the best that they can be,” she says. “I love the shakshuka — I could have it any time.”

To make the shakshuka, they fry onions in clarified butter, along with fresh tomatoes and Wahba’s homemade sauce, which is similar to a pasta sauce. Then the eggs are cracked in and scrambled.

“We serve all of our breakfast dishes with balady bread, which is traditional Egyptian bread,” says Wahba. “It’s made with whole wheat and bran, and it’s doughy and chewy — it’s a really nice bite.”

Honey Date Grilled Cheese

Egyptian food Toronto | Maha's Egyptian Brunch Honey Date Grilled Cheese

“I actually came up with this in my apartment, right before we opened up the restaurant,” says Wahba. “The idea came from love for fruit and cheese, basically. It was late one night, and I was hungry, and I just made the date grilled cheese sandwich. I put a little bit of honey, and I melted the dates in butter.”

When she told her mom and Mark about her latest creation, they were intrigued. “I told them, ‘Wait till you try it,’ and they were both like ‘Oh yeah, this is a hit. This is perfect,’” she says.

“Also, I wanted Egyptian food to be approachable … If people were not adventurous, I wanted the date grilled cheese to be something that’s easier to dip your toes into Egyptian cuisine,” Wahba adds. “But we still have people asking if they can have the grilled cheese without the dates, and I’m like, ‘At home you can, not here. Sorry.’ Because that’s the whole point.”

Maha’s Mind Blowing Chicken Sandwich

Egyptian food Toronto | Maha's Egyptian Brunch Maha’s Mind Blowing Chicken Sandwich

“I came up with this name from day one,” says Wahba. “And my mom was like, ‘This is such a mouthful, this is so ridiculous.’ She was kind of embarrassed, but I was like ‘Mom, trust me.’ The reason behind the name is, I didn’t want to call it shawarma, even though it’s modelled after a shawarma sandwich. But I was very adamant, when we first opened up the restaurant, I wanted to have an impact. I didn’t want it to be lumped into this umbrella of what Toronto’s idea of Middle Eastern food is.”

The dish is based on one of her mom’s favourite sandwiches that she would eat back when she was a university student in Cairo. Though the original is much smaller, it “evolved to keep up with its name,” says Wahba. “I would take in people’s response to the food, and I would always try to up the ante ... But it’s my mom’s delicious marinade that she would make for the chicken, and we use both tehina sauce and tomeya, homemade garlic mayo, and fresh tomatoes, onions and parsley — and it’s just a delicious mess.”