Growing up in Jordan, Sari and Sophie Salameh had no idea that they would one day trade the Red Sea for the St. Johns River. A few years after relocating to Jacksonville, however, the duo decided to open a business based on their mutual love for the food of their homeland. Salameh’s Tabouleh Mediterranean Café began as a tiny grocery store and has grown to house some of the best authentic Mediterranean food in the region.
Sari might tell you that Sophie is the real brain behind Tabouleh. “All the recipes are in her head,” he says. Sophie, who has a few other Jacksonville restaurants under her chef’s belt, learned from the best: her mother, who is a chef in the Mediterranean. “I believe that cooking comes from the heart,” Sophie says, which is why she doesn’t use exact measurements, but instead tastes and seasons while she cooks. This makes stealing her recipes quite difficult, though Sophie was nice enough to share some — not all — of her falafel ingredients when I confessed my homemade falafel always crumbles. Don’t worry, Sophie — your recipe is safe with me.
Located in an Arlington strip mall on Merrill Road, Tabouleh’s small interior is filled with weekly regulars who are there for vegan Wednesday, or the special home-cooked meals every Friday.
On my most recent visit, I was undecided about whether to order an appetizer of hummus or falafel, so I ordered both in the Mediterranean Sampler ($11.99). The dish includes hummus, falafel, grape leaves, kibbeh, tabouleh, tzatziki sauce, and pita bread. It’s an excellent choice for the diner who’s indecisive, yet hungry. The grape leaves were warm and juicy and my first-ever experience with kibbeh (ground beef and spices fried in bulgur wheat) was a pleasant one.
The great thing about this sampler dish is that the various items blend well. I mixed and matched kibbeh with hummus, and falafel with tabouleh, trying different variations that all tasted splendid.
I’m a seasoned Tabouleh customer, albeit a boring one. After four years ordering the exact same entrée (Falafel Pita Wrap with hummus), I decided it was time to risk another dish. I took a leap and ordered a Beef Shawarma Wrap (aren’t I adventurous?). The beef shawarma ($8.39), swathed in a fresh pita, is topped with lettuce, pickles, onions, and tomatoes. The meat was juicy and the creamy tahini sauce was, fortunately, kept at bay by the aluminum foil around the pita, which also ensured the pickles stayed neatly tucked inside. To accompany the wrap, I ordered the Mediterranean salad, which has bursts of parsley, mint, and lemon that makes each bite pop.
A meal without baklava is like a day without the sun. Sari brought out the dessert with Turkish coffee ($3.75) in a traditional stainless steel pot. The coffee had a hint of cardamom that softened the sweetness of the honey and nut pastry. Tabouleh’s baklava is crunchy and tasty. The only downside is how quickly it disappears.
The reserved Salamehs don’t make a fuss about much, and that’s what makes Tabouleh so reliable. The food is fresh, consistently great, and doesn’t try to be something it’s not. It’s easy to feel at home in the restaurant, and it’s even easier to come back for more. And after four years of dining at Tabouleh, I have finally reached fist-bumping status with Sari. The perks of writing for Folio Weekly are infinite.