I’d contacted Yassin Terou weeks ago when I heard about his Falafel restaurant opening at 706 Walnut. Those of you who read this blog know there would be at least a couple of reasons for me to get very excited about this new venture. I’ve written regularly about our need for more ethnic food offerings downtown and about our need to expand the footprint of our locations for restaurants and other businesses.
Yassin’s Falafel House answers both concerns. Originally from Syria, Falafels aren’t ethnic food to Yassin, they are the food he grew up eating. A previous venture had him serving up the falafels in Alicante, Spain. He moved to Knoxville so his ex could attend UT. When that relationship ended, he moved away briefly, but returned. It seems a new relationship had formed: he loved Knoxville and wanted to live here.
Unfortunately I wasn’t able to make it to the restaurant at first because his work hours coincided with mine and I was not downtown when he opened the store each day. He opens Monday through Friday 11:00 AM to 2:30 – or until the falafels run out – and that has happened several times. He continues to increase the amount he makes each day, but demand also continues to increase. I would strongly suggest you get there early. We got there just after they opened and easily placed our order, but a rush followed us, which incidentally included a young Chinese man who greeted Yassin in Arabic.
So, when I met a friend there for lunch earlier this week, I already liked it because of the location – which is, after all, just three blocks from Market Square and the fact that it is a new ethnic entry into the downtown food scene. Decorated simply, the painted design on the wall and the great windows make it a very appealing space. Yassin greeted us when we entered and remembered the conversation we had last spring.
The menu didn’t take long to assimilate: Falafels and hummus. Any questions? To be fair, you can choose your spice level. Yassin recommends only light spice because the flavor of the falafel is so good he doesn’t want it to be overwhelmed. When he told me that, I’ll confess I didn’t pay much attention because, after all, doesn’t every chef think they’ve got the dish just so? Still, I followed his suggestion. I also ordered the hummus to share and got a Mexican Coke.
The drink offerings are worth mentioning. In addition to Mexican Coke, they also have cream soda and yogurt drinks. In discussing the drink offerings, Yassin pointed out that he makes a great effort to provide healthy items. He prepares his falafels each day and all the ingredients are as fresh as possible. He doesn’t sell drinks with high fructose corn syrup – hence the Mexican Coke – and he actually encourages people to drink the fruit water he prepares each day in a large cooler. The day I visited he’d made orange mint and it was delicious, but I’d already bought the Coke. When have you ever been in a restaurant and had the owner encourage you to take the free drink?
So, how was the food? You know I always look for the best in businesses downtown and so I rarely say anything overtly negative. But listen: This food is amazing. When my friend and I tasted the hummus, we looked at each other in surprise. It’s creamier than most hummus I eat and has olive oil on the top, which is a bit different. I’m not ready to say it’s my favorite, I’ll have to try it again to decide that, but it was very good.
And the falafel? At the first bite we started laughing at how completely outrageously good they are. We kept saying we couldn’t believe it. Made with chick beans, fava beans, tomato, onion and tahini, it was one of the best food items I’ve ever eaten. And those other falafels I’ve eaten? I’m not even sure they were falafels, after all. Crunchy on the outside and smooth on the inside, he was right about the spice: the lightly spiced are perfect. You can see the size from the photograph. It was more than I should have eaten. Two people could easily split a falafel and an order of hummus.
The prices are also as good as you could do anywhere downtown for lunch. Falafels are $7, hummus (served with the same pita bread that wraps the falafel sandwiches) is $5. So, two people could eat for $12 if you split the order. And I’ll definitely drink the water the next time I go.
I did manage to eat a whole sandwich by myself simply because it was so good I couldn’t stop. He assured me the sandwich would keep just fine if I wanted to take part of it home. I’m not sure a part of one will ever make it that far.
Business has been very good and he mentioned in particular the support he has received from the library staff at the Lawson McGhee Library which is located directly across the street. He’s added an employee: Sara who is from Eygpt and flashed a beautiful smile as she told us she knew Yassin before the restaurant opened and he talked her into working there.
But Yassin isn’t finished. In fact, he’s just getting started. He’s expanded into the space that previously held Pop Culture (which has moved to Sutherland Avenue) and opened up a meeting space. He is now offering catering services, which sounds like an awesome menu for a working lunch, to me. The outside space beside the store is also his to use and he has some tables there, now, but he has plans for something much grander. It’s located across the corner from the Hilton whose new owners announced plans yesterday to expand their own courtyard which services their bar and restaurant, so maybe the area will develop as a downtown destination for more people.
The hours and menu will also likely be expanded over the coming weeks. As much as he emphasized fresh and healthy eating, he stressed the importance of expanding slowly and getting the food and the service right. When he’s ready he will probably try Friday nights, perhaps First Friday as a start, and Saturday hours. More is better if you ask me.
So, we have an opportunity to support more food variety and to open up a new part of downtown to foot traffic. Let’s do it. Meet me there.