Kassem Fardoun isn't your typical Lebanese-American restaurateur. The 35-year-old Fordson High School graduate (Class of 1998) lives in west Dearborn, in lofts above the Buffalo Wild Wings on Michigan Avenue. When he's not working at his Midtown eatery, Falafill, he's out playing soccer or watching it. He listens to reggae every morning, and, when we meet him at his restaurant, he's wearing a T-shirt with an image of Bob Marley playing soccer. The shirt mostly conceals the half-sleeve tattoos that cover his upper arms. In fact, his left arm bears the image of Marley above a badge for AC Milan, Fardoun's favorite team. He's obviously a laid-back dude, and he takes a seat with us to answer some questions.
Why didn't he open a restaurant in Dearborn? He laughs and says, "The east side is full. There's not a single store that's not occupied on the east side." Detroit, he says, is where it's at. "Detroit is the most hopping place right now in Michigan," Fardoun says. "We've got the school, we've got the hospital, we've got Campus Martius, we've got Quicken Loans. Everybody's downtown."
Plus, Fardoun is trying to find that sweet spot between authentic Mediterranean flavors and accessible fast food, and a place that can appreciate it. Even though Middle Eastern fare is already pretty well-represented in the area (Harmony Garden Café, Byblos, La Palma), the Falafill concept sets him apart. He says, "My concept is nothing like anything in Dearborn. In Dearborn you go, you get fine dining, you're going to get a big meal, you get a plate, and you can't even play with it. It's just, 'This is what you get.' Me it's like Chipotle but Mediterranean. You come up here, you pick your own ingredients, you can make your own sandwiches. So it's kind of like cool and hip Mediterranean. And when you want to open up something hip like that, you want to be in a hip area. So this is the place to be."
Fardoun wants to give diners a choice, and he wants them to get it quickly: "You come in here, you pick what you want, you're going to have it the way you want, not the way they want you to have it. And you're going to get it in less than five minutes. Nobody has that, anywhere."
Plus, he's making sure everything at his eatery is fresh as possible. He says, "We do everything from scratch every morning. There's nothing that's pre-packaged. We season it, we cut it, we cook it. We get our meat from Saad Meat Market, one the most popular in Eastern Market. We get our vegetables from Randazzo's. We source it all from Dearborn or Detroit, whatever's closest."
Plus, in a neighborhood where coney dogs have reigned supreme, Falafill provides an array of choices for vegetarians, with vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free options. Fardoun says, "We only have three things that aren't vegetarian, the rest of the menu is vegetarian. That means the meatballs, the steak, and the chicken. Everything else is vegetarian. So we've got the rice, we've got the grilled vegetables, we've got the fried cauliflower, tabbouleh, hummus, quinoa, baba ghanoush, we've got Armenian salad, lentil cabbage, relish, we've got the chickpea salad, we've got the pickles, the tomatoes, the jalapeños, and we've got the sauces. So if you want a veggie sandwich, you'll have the best one here. Because you get to make it the way you want, not just onions and green peppers."
Fardoun also wants Falafill to be a neighborhood spot. To that end, he's offering 10 percent discounts to employees at the medical center, students at Wayne State University, and, frankly, anybody who can prove they're his neighbor.
We get a falafel sandwich to give it the test. It's wrapped like a generous burrito, and the thing pops with flavor. This one comes with mint leaves, which add a fragrant quality. The tender balls of fried chickpea crunch a bit, but aren't tough, still green on the inside. It doesn't get sloppy. Never once do we think of drenching it in toum, the flavorful garlic paste that can rescue an inferior falafel sandwich.
Fardoun's eatery is a bright, clean, attractive space with walls of white tile, but with the back wall decorated with a wildly colorful collage featuring a huge image of a lively Beirut street scene in its center. Fardoun spent more than a year building the space out, and opened just in time for the M1 construction to wipe out his parking. Now he and several other neighboring businesses are gutting it out, waiting for the construction to move to the other side of the street.
Fardoun says, "It's been a big problem. I mean, the foot traffic is amazing, it's just that I have so many people who call and say, 'We tried to find parking but we couldn't. We'll come back some other time.' But we're hanging in there.
"Two years from now, this city's going to be unreal. That's why I'm here, because I believe in the city. I mean, Detroit is the place to be right now. Honestly, let's be real."
Falafill is at 4206 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-338-3574; eatfalafill.com.