The Jewish owner and Muslim manager of this falafel restaurant are blurring a lot of cultural and culinary lines.
"Everything here was built on falafel."
Falafel St. Jacques owner Ronen Baruch is originally from Israel, as is his manager Saleh Seh. Baruch is Jewish and Seh is Muslim, which, if certain misconceptions about Israel are to be believed, could raise some eyebrows. But they don't really care.
"Here, it's fresh and friendly and clean," Saleh chimes in. "Our customers are Jews and Arabs and Chinese and Japanese and everyone. They eat and laugh and enjoy. In the Middle East, the politics is bullshit. We don't talk politics, it's going to make problems. We're in Canada; if you want a problem, then bas go back!"
Either way, Baruch and Seh have more to worry about than geopolitical conflict. They've got mouths to feed—a lot of mouths. Since opening just over a year ago, Falafel St. Jacques has become a huge draw for Montrealers enticed not only by high-quality vegetarian food, but by good vibes. There is no shortage of quick, cheap falafel joints in the city, but few emphasize the quality of their ingredients as much as Baruch.
"Falafel is street food," Baruch explains. "It's simple. There is nothing fancy about it. For us, it's all about freshness and quality. We make the falafel to order, fresh pita, our hummus too, there are no preservatives. We even make the tahini on site."
Their menu is extensive, but you won't find any meat on it. For the crew at Falafel St. Jacques, an entirely vegetarian menu has more to do with simplicity than any kind of food trend. The texture of their meatless shawarma, shish taouk, and chicken wings is uncannily meat-like. So how do you make meatless meat for Middle Eastern classics? Not with soy or seitan, but with fungi.
"We use shiitake mushrooms," Baruch explains. "The texture and the feeling is just like meat, and after that, it's just about flavouring and seasoning."
Whatever additional alchemy goes on in the kitchen at Falafel St. Jacques, the end result is virtually indistinguishable from chicken.
"We started with falafel and wanting to bring falafel to a higher level. But as it got really popular, we saw a huge demand for vegetarian food, so we started playing around in the kitchen with vegetarian shawarma and shish taouk and chicken wings. It was a great experiment. We've got a lot of meat lovers who come here and a lot of vegetarians and vegans too."
"We only serve healthy stuff," Saleh says. "It's like a pharmacy here."
Ville St. Pierre is not a neighbourhood where you would expect to find boundary-pushing vegetarian food. It's a working-class neighbourhood near factories and industrial parks. Falafel St. Jacques itself is on St. Jacques street (hence the name) directly across from a car wash and the highway—far from the gentrifying reach of hipsters.
Linguistic diversity was also on display the afternoon I visited, with customers sporadically leaning into our interview to thank Baruch in a medley of languages. But cutting through these cultural and linguistic boundaries isn't as hard as it seems.
"We have food from different cultures on the table," Baruch says. "And the idea is to leave the politics outside and to come in and bite into falafel—that's it. We have Arab and Jewish customers sitting together in a restaurant, which is something you don't usually see. And you hear French, English, Arabic, and Hebrew in here. We integrate everything together here."
That's why Saleh is the secret weapon of Falafel St. Jacques. He works seven days a week, greets everyone who walks through the door with a big, hospitable smile, and can banter effortlessly while scooping falafel into perfect spheres.
"Saleh started with me about 12 years ago. He ran my pita operation, and here he runs the whole kitchen, the whole operation. He has the Arab hospitality. Often, at Israeli restaurants, you're being served by Arabs. It's very, very well-known how hospitable they are. Before you even sit down, they serve you. They are always one step ahead."
Everything in the Middle East is political—even food. Wondering if I could instigate a friendly argument, I ask Baruch and Saleh who invented falafel—an admittedly dumb question—but one which would give me a glimpse into their respective culture's relationship with food.
"The story behind who invented falafel is controversial," according to Baruch. "The Egyptians will say, 'This is our food.' The Lebanese will say, 'This is our food.' The Israeli will say, 'This is our national food," and the Jordanian will tell you the same thing. And you don't even want to start that argument. But one thing is for sure—it's the most eaten food in all of those places."
Saleh is a little more succinct in his response. "It's good food. Who cares who invented it?"
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in November, 2016.