Netflix’s hit show Mo isn’t a story about food, but often, it tells its story through food. At least in part.
Debuted in August 2022, the dramedy, loosely based on the life of Houston comedian Mo Amer, explores the actor’s life as a Muslim Palestinean refugee in Alief, Texas, through his character Mo Najjar. It’s a story about equality and the underdog. “Anybody who’s ever felt like a fish out of water, or moves paycheck to paycheck, but is trying and struggling to do the right thing, this is for you,” Amer says.
Set in Clutch City, the show inevitably involves eating, with Houston’s food scene operating as a supporting character; several cameos show just how ingrained food is in the city’s culture and identity.
In Mo, what the characters eat or crave arguably serves as a vehicle, albeit subtle, to further explore and demonstrate identity and belonging, community, and cultural awareness. It operates as a connector at times, a buffer at others, and often as comfort, Amer says. During a moment of panic, Mo’s sister asks her brother Sameer whether he ate. At another point, Mo’s mother leaves out a comforting plate of hummus and pita for him to wake up to. And in the finale when Mo’s girlfriend Maria, played by Teresa Ruiz, suggests a reconciliation over takeout. Meanwhile, one of the series’ tensest moments centers around olive oil.
Mo’s food references should come as no surprise, though, especially for people familiar with Amer’s work. “It’s a big part of my life,” Amer says. “When [my family] fled the war in Kuwait, I remember my mother giving my sister a recipe book that went back 100 years at the time.” It’s these memories that he’s incorporated in his comedy specials, including Netflix’s “Mohammad in Texas,” where he recalls bringing back spices from overseas and rants about the rampant cultural appropriation of hummus, a staple in Palestinean households.
The comedian’s reverence and protectiveness toward hummus resurfaces in Mo when his character encounters a chocolate-flavored, “shit emoji” hummus at a local grocery store after spending an evening at the now-closed Kaan Ya Makan hookah lounge with friends. Instead of hot sauce (swag), Mo lovingly carries his mother’s homemade olive oil, another Palestinean specialty, in his pocket, and seeks to replenish his family’s healing stash by visiting a local olive grove amid moments of uncertainty. In the show’s first episode, Mo dines on grits, eggs, and pancakes with his Maria and his best friend Nick (played by local hip hop artist and fellow Alief-er Tobe Nwigwe) at The Breakfast Klub.
Featuring the iconic Houston institution, which counts celebrities like comedian Kevin Hart and music mogol Beyonce as fans, was a no-brainer for Amer. “I’ve been going to The Breakfast Klub for years,” he says, noting that he has brought friends, including comedian Dave Chapelle, to the popular Midtown spot. “It is Houston. It’s just a great reflection of the city and an example of a Black-owned business that’s been there forever. Anytime we want to have breakfast, that’s where we want to go.”
Elsewhere throughout the season, viewers see glimpses of Houston’s Abdullah’s Lebanese bakery; comforting spreads of tea and small pastries during a funeral ritual; a sincere but failed attempt at halal food at a local Chick N’ Cone; breakfast tacos made and guzzled on the go; a sinister meeting outside of Alief’s La Hacienda meat market; plus a reference to Shipley’s kolaches and bear claw donuts — and an expression of deep regret when there are none in a moment of trouble.
And though “lean” — the recreational drug mixture of a soft drink (often, Sprite) and cough syrup containing codeine and promethazine — is not food, it’s worth noting that it too makes a recognizable, very Houston, double-cupped cameo. Amer vehemently shuts down any notion that the “purple drank” plot has any links to his real life; though he says a curious on-set extra asked him for his lean connect during filming. (“I was like ‘No, it’s fucking fake!’ No, I don’t do it,” he says, laughing.) The incorporation of the drug, he says, happened almost by accident as a way to move along the show’s storyline and illustrate a character who, after losing his way, self-medicated to avoid dealing with real-life issues. Being able to reference some of the Houston legends and hip-hop stars who have fallen victim to the drug, like Big Mo, DJ Screw, and Pimp C of UGK, was just a relatable way to lead to a deeper layer of complexity, he says. “People have lost family members to drug abuse, so we wanted to highlight that and … to make a point that people should get to the bottom of their problems,” Amer says.
What is consumed throughout Mo is just as reflective of Amer’s life as a Palestinian American and immigrant as it is of Houston, he says. From Vietnamese cuisine to Tex-Mex, “Houston, specifically, has the best food in America. It’s one of the most diverse. It’s one of the most creative,” Amer says. “I don’t think it’s debatable.” To have included Houston’s food scene and characters’ clear appreciation and reverence for food — a central part of the city’s enduring identity — only makes sense.
It’s vital, Amer says. “You can’t think properly without food or without being nourished and taking care of yourself,” he says. And in many ways, food is Houston’s love language, or at least, Amer says, “it’s a really important part of it.” Though Amer and showrunners are still waiting on the “almighty algorithm” to determine Mo’s fate, the show’s reception in Houston (and beyond) has been incredible, with many people in the community, particularly the Latinx community, embracing him, he says.
The local approval, Amer says, “is very important, or else I’d have to move.”