When Ihab Elyafe first moved from his native Syria to Dallas, TX, seven or so years ago, he worked for several years for Enterprise Rent-A-Car before moving to Tampa to be closer to family. He got some experience working for a number of restaurants locally but always felt he was missing something — a restaurant that served food with the unique flavors of his homeland.

Ihab and his partner Samer El Dahala began scouting locations more than a year ago and ultimately found a 2,800-sq.-ft. space on E. Fowler Ave. across from University Mall. They opened Champa Chicken earlier this year and for Ihab, it’s obvious that the restaurant is a true labor of love.

“I wanted to open a restaurant that focused mainly on the different kinds of chicken I grew up on in Syria,” he says. “And I wanted it to be a casual restaurant with great prices for food that you might expect to find in a fine-dining establishment.”

If you already enjoy Middle Eastern or Mediterranean-style food, you’ll feel right at home at Champa Chicken. Even if you’re not already a fan, if you’re in the mood for chicken with different flavors than what you might normally be used to, Ihab, his wife Sherry and their daughter Sara serve always fresh, delicious chicken several different ways.

The fried chicken shown at the top of this page has a delicate, nicely spiced coating and is pressure cooked until it is super-crisp on the outside and juicy and tender inside. Individual pieces of the fried chicken are available, as well as two-, four- and eight-piece meals served with a side of crispy fries or creamy cole slaw and a fountain drink.

Champa Chicken also offers fall-off-the-bone-tender baked chicken with a savory red pepper sauce, and a variety of rotisserie-grilled chicken options, including rosemary, lemon garlic and spicy grilled. All of these are sold as half or full chickens with a huge side of uniquely spiced rice or cole slaw. Ihab recommends the authentic Mediterranean garlic sauce for dipping with any of the chicken options. 

Is that not enough options for you? There also are three-, four-, five- and ten-piece crispy chicken tender options (served with fries or slaw with a fountain drink), as well as six- and 12-piece fried hot or mild Buffalo-style, fried garlic parmesan and grilled lemon garlic or spicy wings available. Photographer Charmaine George enjoyed the mild Buffalo wings and I definitely savored the flavor of the garlic parmesan wings.

Ihab says that a couple of sandwich options are coming soon, including a chicken tawook (kebabs marinated in yogurt, citrus, garlic and spices) and yes, even a Philly-style cheesesteak sandwich, both served on hoagie-style bread.

“I know that not everyone loves chicken as much as I do,” Ihab says. “We may even add more non-chicken options in the future, too.”

For Starters… 

Although the varieties of chicken are definitely the stars of the show at Champa Chicken, there also are some other options on the menu. 

Starters include truly homemade, super-creamy hummus, freshly-made Mediterranean-style and Caesar salads (the Caesar is available with grilled chicken, too) and some of the best fried mozzarella sticks I’ve had in years, served with a differently spiced, thick tomato dipping sauce.

“The fries and the mozzarella sticks are the only items that start out frozen,” Ihab says, pointing to the small freezer at the front of the kitchen. “Everything else here starts out fresh and we marinate all of the chicken ourselves.”

Ihab also is rightfully proud of how clean his restaurant is — and he’s willing to take anyone who asks on a tour of the kitchen to prove it. He says it is all part of how much he loves his food — and his customers. 

“I don’t know why anyone would want to eat at a dirty restaurant,” he says. “I want you to know that when you eat at Champa Chicken, our restaurant will be clean and your food will always be fresh.”

He adds, “When your number one ingredient is love, it shows in everything you do. “I love our food and how it is made. I think if you come in and see how we take care of our restaurant, our food and our customers, you will definitely want to come back.”

I almost forgot to mention, because I haven’t yet sampled either one of them, that Champa Chicken also serves a rustic triple berry tart and chocolate lava cake for dessert. In addition to a soda fountain with Pepsi products, there’s also a machine serving a variety of iced tea flavors, including a super-tasty Yumberry Pomegranate.

Champa Chicken is located at 2311 E. Fowler Ave. and is open every day (except it is closed on Wednesday) from 11 a.m.-9 p.m. For more information, call (813) 443-4200 or visit ChampaChicken.com.   

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