By David Villano
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But one evening, his life changed. His young fiancée was in the kitchen cooking dinner. A fire erupted.
"Her whole body burned," Ebaid says solemnly. "She died."
"I didn't come here like everybody else to make money," Ebaid explains. "I was sad back home, completely sad."
But the United States didn't turn things around completely. Ebaid did poorly in school, unable to concentrate on his studies and obsessing about the fire.
"Because of what had happened in Egypt, I felt completely dismantled," he says. "I would sit in front of the book and read the same line for hours, and I could not absorb it."
After three months, Ebaid dropped out and went to work in restaurants in Long Island for several years. In 1992 he opened his own eatery, the Shish Kabob, in Long Beach. During the warm months, he also operated a concession stand serving falafel and kebabs.
Around the same time, Ebaid met his wife, Maria Flores. A Mexican-American Catholic, Flores helped him transition from Middle Eastern to Mexican cuisine. In late 1993, they opened Aztec Café in Miller Place, New York, and a year later, they inaugurated a second restaurant, a Tex-Mex place called Cactus Jack, in Mineola, about 40 miles away.
Ebaid and Flores had their first child, a little girl, in February 1997. About two years later, they sold their restaurants and moved to North Miami Beach. Ebaid aimed to open a restaurant and wanted to find an area with a lot of well-educated people and international tourists a demographic he believes is best suited for a Middle Eastern restaurant.
In February 2002, Ebaid finally settled on downtown Hollywood. He found his kitchen manager in Quintin Cortes Rodriguez, a jovial 63-year-old Puerto Rican who worked at a butcher shop that Ebaid frequented.
"Before I even had time to think about it, I agreed to work for Manny," Rodriguez remembers. Exotic Bites' other employees include a cook and two waitresses from Israel.
In just a few years, they built the restaurant, at the time located on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Young Circle, into one of the city's most visible places. Ebaid and Rodriguez "became family," as Rodriguez says. In fact Ebaid's two children refer to Rodriguez as "grandpa."
Ebaid can be difficult and demanding, Rodriguez admits, but he's also very kind. After Hurricane Frances clipped South Florida in September 2004, he distributed food and drinks to the homeless in downtown Hollywood. "He was like a saint, a real saint," Rodriguez says.
Ebaid can also be generous. On November 28, 2004, while Ebaid was busy taking care of patrons, someone dashed inside the restaurant and grabbed two multihose arghilehs, worth about $150 each. Ebaid gave chase, and the man quickly jumped into a truck and drove away. Police were unable to identify a suspect. Less than two weeks later, on December 12, 2004, it happened again. A young man ran inside the restaurant, grabbed an arghileh, and scampered down Hollywood Boulevard. One of Ebaid's customers noticed the theft and chased down the man, dragging him back to the restaurant, water pipe in hand.
"I got the guy inside, and we called the police," Ebaid recalls. "They arrested the guy. He was a high school kid from a very rich Jewish family. When it came time to go to court, I dropped the charges. I didn't want it to go on his record, something like that, a stolen arghileh. It would be on his record and ruin his life.... He learned his lesson."
Ebaid isn't always so even-tempered. Rodriguez remembers one particular incident when two Palestinian men were sitting at an outside table, smoking from an arghileh.
"They were talking Bush that, America this, Israel that," Rodriguez says. "Manny went over and looked at me. He pointed to his ear. I knew what he meant. He didn't like what they were saying. He went up to the table and slammed down the arghileh. He broke the thing. That's when he yelled, 'This is my country now, and you're not talking bad politics here. Get the fuck out, and don't come back.'"
Ebaid is hesitant to talk about the incident. He wonders if another Arab might have been responsible for his inclusion on the terrorist list. "Sometimes I think it was someone from my own people who said those things about me a traitor, an Arab," Ebaid says.
As he watches a belly dancer outside Exotic Bites on a recent evening, Rodriguez laughs about the absurdity of Ebaid's ordeal.
"Terrorism?" he says. "If I thought Manny was a terrorist, I'd be the first to put my foot up his ass."
Ebaid approached the two men and introduced himself as Manny. "What would you like to drink?" he asked, handing menus to both men.