Food from the heart: Popular Falafel Café owner prepares for grand reopening

For more than 20 years, Mae Elassal has found joy in making and serving authentic Middle Eastern food to customers who hail not only from Cleveland but all over the world.

Operating the Falafel Café with her late husband, Hani, on Cedar and Green Roads in Beachwood from 1997 until 2004, and a second location on Euclid Avenue in University Circle from 2000 to 2018—where they served students, faculty, employees of University Hospitals, and visitors from as far away as China and Australia—Elassal lost her Euclid Avenue lease in 2018 and had to close the restaurant.

Plans to reopen in a new location were canceled after Hani died unexpectedly.

Mae Elassa (left) operated the Falafel Café with her late husband, Hani, in Beachwood from 1997 until 2004, and a second location in University Circle from 2000 to 2018.But Elassal is coming back to University Circle this month in the former Simply Greek space, 11454 Uptown Ave., welcoming the return of her loyal customers (1,041 of whom signed a petition in 2018, begging landlord to renew the lease).

“I’ve been here in this area for 18 years and I’ve raised my customers one by one,” Elassal says of University Circle. “I support my customers because they support me, and we’re the only Middle Eastern restaurant around here.”

The new space is about 1,300 square feet, Elassal estimates, and seats about 20 people. She will not have table service like she did at the old location, but she says people can order and eat there or take their food to go.

As a teenager growing up in a mountain village in Lebanon, Elassal learned to cook from her mother. She put her own spin on the recipes and makes all her food, marinades, and sauces from scratch. Grill cook James Tinsley helps execute the authentic dishes like falafel, shawarma (marinated beef and lamb, grilled peppers and onions, tahini, lettuce, tomato, and pickles and pickled turnips), and shish tawook (marinated chicken, grilled peppers and onions, lettuce, tomato, pickles and pickled turnips, and garlic mayo).

Elassal takes great pride in the meals she serves to her customers and says the smiles she sees when they are eating are a reward on their own. “If I don’t eat it, I’m not going to provide it for my customers,” she says. “You can’t please all people, but if I please 75%, I’d be happy.”

One of Falafel Cafe’s signature dishes is stuffed grape leaves. Elassal says people have tried to convince her over the years to buy pre-made stuffed grape leaves, but she won’t hear of it—stuffing her leaves by hand with lentils, rice, parsley, tomato, lemon juice and olive oil.

“I’m not going to buy grape leaves,” she says. “No, I’m not going to do it. I’ve kept my product the same from the first day. I’m here to make everything special. They come to me just for my grape leaves.”

Stuffed grape leaves at the Falafel Café In addition to the traditional menu items, Elassal has added a few new sandwiches to the menu, including a fried cauliflower sandwich and a fried eggplant sandwich, both served with sauces and fries. “I’m trying to make the vegan people happy too,” she says.

Elassal signed a three-year lease with the Case Western Reserve University office of real estate, the building’s owner. She credits Case director of real estate Kevin Slesh with helping facilitate the lease. “He’s been so helpful,” she says. “All of the staff at the office have been so helpful.”

Elassal also quickly gives credit to her customers, who have supported her in the two years Falafel Café was closed. “I really appreciate my customers, and I really appreciate them coming back to me, asking about me,” she says. “They sent me notes when my husband died, and a lot of people signed the petition. I love them all.”

The reopening in University Circle is, at least in part, homage to Hani. “Before my husband passed away, I told him we’d keep this business going because he’s one of the founders,” Elassal says. “[If Hani could see me,] he’d be looking at me and he would be proud.”

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.
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