A street cart that was once a gas station is now a fast food joint near the Kearny Mesa courthouse
Call it a case of mistaken identity, but I’ve been eating tahini.
A by-product of writing about food week after week is that my brain has effectively become a restaurant map, with landmarks on any given block jumbled up with places to eat. So when I’m driving down, let’s say, Claremont Mesa Avenue, I know that when I pass the strip club, I’m next to that awesome ramen place, which means I’m about to cross the freeway, which puts I took it to the courthouse, which was across the street from the Middle Eastern fast casual restaurant I didn’t like.
9119 Clairemont Mesa Blvd., Suite H, San Diego
To be clear, I’ve spent neither time in a strip club nor in a courthouse, and I actually found their mutual proximity a bit suspicious. The point is, for over five years, every time I’ve driven by Middle Eastern fast-casual tahini, my brain map has been telling me not to stop. This was fine, except I’ve never had a meal with tahini.
when i visit a different Fast casual Middle Eastern joint just happens to be a block further down the same side of the street. (To be fair, I must be the only one denying that place, because it still exists, and is still thriving nearly nine years later.)
OG pita bread from tahini featuring Syrian-inspired steak shawarma
Also, now that I know more about tahini, it did exist back then, but only as a super street cart parked outside a Pacific Beach gas station. There, the company’s founding partners put aside existing career plans — one of which was a Harvard law degree — to sell street food that reflected their shared Arab culture. Think shawarma and falafel.
This decision may sound outlandish, but the results may warm your heart. Since opening in Kearny Mesa in 2017, owners Osama Shabaik and Mahmoud Barkawi have made a point of paying above-minimum wages and recruiting from within the refugee community. It’s hard to imagine that anything that happens at the courthouse will have such a positive impact on their community.
Tahini also operates sustainable packaging (i.e. no Styrofoam), which is great considering the counter store operates a simplified takeaway business. About a third of the guests I saw pass by during the lunch rush, just walked in, picked up their packed food, and walked out. Despite the investment, and the gorgeous interior adorned with colorful glass mosaic lights, prices are still well within reason, meaning you can have a satisfying lunch and drink for less than $15 these days. You can even get a falafel pita sandwich for $11 before tax and tip.
Homemade 50/50 Bowl: Featuring steak and chicken shawarma with salad greens and yellow basmati rice
I decided to upgrade by ordering one of the store’s signature sandwiches: the OG pita ($13). The dish features a tahini-style Syrian-style steak shawarma stuffed with parsley, onions, tomatoes, pickles, and, of course, tahini into a split flatbread. Other options include Egyptian-style pita, which features falafel and hummus, and “the esquire,” which combines chicken shawarma with French fries. That guy had a little airtime with Guy Fieri of the Food Network, so apparently, he didn’t suffer from the same Middle Eastern mess that I did.
Aside from these signature pita breads, most of Tahini’s dishes revolve around a traditional fast-casual “build your own” philosophy. That means guests can order Middle Eastern-inspired rice bowls, salads or sandwiches made with their protein and vegetables of choice. You can even hedge your bets and order a half steak, half chicken mixed rice and salad bowl. I dug into one and it was topped with kalamata olives, pickled radishes and sliced almonds (the latter cost 50 cents more). Considering everything here is made from scratch, I was able to combine the requisite garlic sauce with a variety of different tahini flavors, including cilantro, sriracha, and BBQ.
Make Falafel from Scratch, Both Green and Herb
It turned out to be some of the better Middle Eastern food I’ve tried outside of El Cajon, and besides being halal, it was fresh and delicious. But I wouldn’t leave without trying the falafel. These will slow down your order since they’re also made from scratch, but they also taste alike. These patties don’t opt for inert, savory and savory chickpea flour flavors, but bright green herbs made with grass and citric acid. They’re an idyllic accompaniment to the Tahini Tahini line.
It’s something I would have been glad to have discovered five years ago, but at least I was on time to find the new Middle Eastern-inspired coffee shop Shabaik and Barkawi that just opened next door to Tahini. This rare café serves both Turkish coffee and nitro cold brew, and it’s unlikely I’d mistake Finjan on my mental food map.