Dublin’s Falafel Town owner pursues American dream
By Lou Fancher
The American dream is on every falafel plate and folded into each chicken garlic shawarma wrap served at Khaldoon Al-Omari’s Dublin restaurant, Falafel Town.
The fast food Mediterranean cuisine features the expected hummus, babaghanoush, falafel, dolmas, shish kabob, gyros, Turkish coffee, baklava and shawarma plates that brim with halal meats cooked on rotating, vertical spits.
“Halal” is the Arabic word for “permissible,” and indicates that the meat is selected, hand-cut and prepared according to Muslim law. Shawarma translates as “turned.” The chicken, lamb or beef are often prepared with a dry rub of turmeric, salt, coriander and peppers and brined with onions and olive oil before being rotated as they are grilled or baked. The shaved meat is moist and crunchy. Combined with cucumber, eggplant and other vegetables, Al-Omari says it is versatile and filling without being heavy. But it’s not what he cooks at home for his wife, Cathy Al-Omari, and their 9-year-old triplet daughters.
“At home I cook mansaf, the dish of my native country, Jordan. It’s lamb, rice, yogurt sauce. It takes a long time so it doesn’t happen at the restaurant, even though I almost live here right now,” says Al-Omari.
The casual, quick-serve Falafel Town opened in August 2016. Most days, Al-Omari arrives before 10 a.m. and doesn’t leave until 11 p.m. The combo shawarma plate that offers chicken and lamb and a choice between hummus or cucumber salad is the most popular dish on the menu. Expectedly, the falafel are a close second. “People know us from our falafel. We do not make them ahead of time. Our secret flavor and color is the cilantro and jalapeños,” he says.
Al-Omari, 39, came in 2002 to California from his homeland in Jordan to visit a cousin who worked in the restaurant industry. Dreaming of a life with greater prospects, he chose to stay and became a U.S. citizen in 2009. While working as a chef at Gaters in Fremont, he met his wife.
“She’s a software engineer and was my customer. She told me we had good food, and we ended up friends,” he said.
Al-Omari says the experience he gained while working in on-site, corporate dining at Google and LinkedIn provided essential training. In addition to refining his on-demand culinary skills, he acquired invaluable customer service experience.
“I didn’t know how to engage customers. Sometimes, a customer would shout at me because I didn’t put onion in a sandwich. Or if I scratched my head when making a sandwich, they didn’t like it. I corrected my problems.”
He says he admires Americans and American kitchens for their openness. “I can cook and talk to the customer; I can see their eyes. My restaurant is special because it’s about honesty. I love to cook for the people. I love serving the food. When people walk to my restaurant, they walk into my home.”
Al-Omari says that while customers who speak directly to him about a problem are “a part of my learning,” Yelp is humbling. Critical comments about the use of garlic or salt — or the lack of black pepper that he avoids because it makes the meat dark and generates other objections — are expected.
“Some people will find fault. We cannot make everybody happy. I can only try.”
Trying includes free baklava for a woman who drove repeatedly around the building in which Falafel Town is located before finding the restaurant.
“She was going to be late getting back to her job. I gave her baklava; she gave me a large tip and has come back again,” he says.
If customers get extra fries or attention and it costs the restaurant an extra $60 dollars a month or more time, it’s worth it.
“They are excited. They bring their family the next time they visit.”
Al-Omari says the Mediterranean dishes that he learned to cook when he was a teenager and used to sneak out of school to help in his father’s small restaurant are popular and well-suited to California’s inquisitive culinary scene.
“When I worked for LinkedIn, our station was always busy. We served 500 people a day. Engineers were always telling me I should open my own shop.”
And now that he has followed their suggestions and pursued his American dream of an immigrant who arrives with few possessions and discovers fulfilling work and a family he loves, Al-Omari says that he is home.
“I have opportunity here. California is very good, very accepting.”