Jack’s Grill and Mediterranean Cuisine was recently opened on North Neil and Vine St. in Champaign by father and son, Jack and Munther Ahmedjawad.
Historically speaking, Champaign-Urbana family-run restaurants are all too common. One can’t whisper the words “family” and “restaurant” in the same sentence around this town without making mention of the Timpone family, who own the famous Jolly Roger in downtown Urbana and the mainstay of fine dining that is Timpone’s.
Success stories like Papa Del’s and Monicals carry the crowns of locally-owned pizza joints that have flourished, and even franchised. And if you remember back far enough, Champaign was once blessed with an honest-to-goodness Italian restaurant district just east of the tracks along Neil: Manzella’s, Minecci’s, Dom’s and Little Italy all used to be owned by members of the same family, whether it be siblings or cousins. Just two now remain (both starting with the letter M), although Dom’s owner John Butitta and his wife, Vicki, will reopen under the name Butitta’s in the old Coke bottling plant-cum-Jillian’s — soon, we hear.
And now, a new family name joins the ranks of local entrepreneurs who have taken to the restaurant business: Ahmedjawad. Owners of the A-1 Grocery on Fourth St. in Champaign, this father-son duo has taken a unique approach to honoring their Jordanian/Palestinian heritage, as well as their current home in the States: Jack’s Grill and Mediterranean Cuisine is actually two restaurants in one. The saying, “like father like son,” just doesn’t apply here.
The younger Ahmedjawad, Munther, is a graduate of Champaign Centennial. The 22 year-old runs Jack’s Grill, a name that honors his father by serving up traditional American food like burgers, fries and wings. Meanwhile, Jack honors his heritage by serving up traditional Middle Eastern fare like falafel sandwiches, homemade shawarma (more on that in a bit), four types of shish kebab, kibbeh, homemade hummus, Arabian salad and more.
The building that houses the restaurant(s) does little to encourage one's appetite; the plain, pink and gray brick façade reminds me of the type of place I’d go to for fuses and motor oil rather than a homemade shawarma sandwich. The interior is bare. And I am not stating this euphemistically; it is literally bare, aside from four tables and eight chairs. There is nothing in the dining section. No pictures, no decorations, not even any paint. Just white walls and a floor. Needless to say, this place isn’t ready to host a sit-down meal for anyone with high standards for ambiance. But considering the quality of the food, the atmosphere didn’t bother me at all. Besides, I live right down the street, making take-out an ideal option.
I ordered as much from the Mediterranean side of the menu as I could and left the American side for a different day. The falafel sandwich was just about perfect — filled with two big, perfectly fried pieces, homemade hummus, Arabian salad and a traditional dressing that had a good tang to it. There could have been more dressing, as falafels tend to get dry fast, but overall, it was a winner — especially for the price, $2.99. For the size of the meal, you won’t beat this anywhere.
During my visit, they were out of lamb kebabs, so I was forced into one of each of the other options: chicken, sirloin and kofta (a spicy ground beef). Each one came well-seasoned, moist, and cooked to order, so be prepared to wait at least fifteen minutes to eat. They were worth the wait. Besides, pre-cooked kebabs, reheated and served fast, don’t ever taste as good as freshly grilled ones.
While I waited, an employee asked if I wanted to try some of their other dishes too, and I happily nodded. I tried the kibbeh (pictured below), a traditional Levantine dish that can be best described as a piece of falafel stuffed with spiced meat, onions and pine nuts. It was served with lemon, which made the flavors really jump out.
But what excited me the most was the shawarma. Having just returned from a trip to New York City, I still had the taste of shawarma in my mouth when I learned that Jack’s had opened. I was thrilled to find that not only did Jack's serve the traditional Levantine sandwich, but there's was 100% freshly homemade.
Many places pass off a beef, chicken and lamb product that has been reconstituted and formed into a large meat cone as shawarma — but not at Jack’s. Munther told me that each morning the restaurant stacks a new spike with beef and lamb steaks and slow cooks it on the upright spit. This is a far cry from the way that most places in town serve shawarma, and it shows in the way that it tastes. For $3.99, you’ll be in shawarma heaven, or nirvana, or wherever you find culinary enlightenment.
There is something about a newly-minted, family-owned venture that makes me hopeful that America is still a place where good products and good service can thrive. If history is an indicator, this little shawarma shop on north Neil will do just that. It better, as I am already craving my next stop there.