The bright smile and happy attitude of original owner Mona Kandah are the first things you’ll note at The Olive Tree Mediterranean Grille in San Marco.

While Mona’s genuine warmth makes the experience special, it’s Olive Tree’s bold claim to some of the best falafel in town that gets attention. It’s routine for restaurant management to advertise that they make “The Best (insert item here) EVER!” In this case, though, I’m willing to back up Olive Tree and say they do serve some of the best falafel in NEFla. The second you order the stuff, you can see the staff start to carefully form the semicircular shapes and drop them in the fryer. Consider yourself warned — fresh outta the fryer means each little falafel is piping hot. The falafel platter ($10.99) includes two sides and pita; I usually choose tabouleh and hummus, because they’re the best to mix and match as you break open the falafel and pita. The tabouleh salad is a happy mixture of tomatoes, cucumbers, parsley, cracked wheat, and green onions, with a dressing Olive Tree makes in-house. 

The hummus is perfect in its simplicity, topped with a swirl of olive oil and a sprinkle of paprika. The texture is so silky and creamy, you’ll want to use it as liberally as I do. Slather it on pita, a sandwich, tabouleh, or just eat it straight.

If falafel’s not your thing, you’ll still get fed — there are many other items they do well. Like the chicken shwarma sandwich ($7.99), which would definitely keep Tony Stark happy after defending Jacksonville’s most notable Friendship Fountain. The fresh chicken is wrapped up in a light pita pocket, slathered in sauce, with lettuce and tomatoes. Mona also recommended the signature kiftah platter ($11.99), which is ground beef heavily seasoned and dished over fluffy, flavorful rice covered with juicy seasoned onions. And Olive Tree offers drink specials and hookah pipes, too.

At Olive Tree, nothing lingers for even a moment from the grill, cutting board, or fryer straight to your plate. A variety of sauces are made in-house, like tzatiziki sauce, cucumber-yogurt sauce, tahini sauce and garlic dip (50 cents for extra sauces). A nice thing about the portions? You can go as big as you want with a full sampler like the Combo Platter ($15.99), which includes kibbeh, best described as portable football-shaped beef packages, spinach pies, meat or vegetarian grape leaves, falafels and sides. Or you can pick and choose, getting just the right amount of grape leaves and spinach pies for a late afternoon snack. Whatever time of day you go to Olive Tree, you’re sure to find Mona smiling behind the counter.