In South Seattle's Hillman City neighborhood, on the corner of Rainier Avenue South and South Graham Street, there's a Mexican grocery with dusty piñatas dangling limply from the ceiling.
Going west on Graham you pass the African braiding salon with one fat goldfish seemingly suspended in the viscous green water. After a dry cleaner with a busy drive-up window, you come to Mawadda Cafe, where Iraqi-born Rami Al-Jebori will be frying falafel, skewering meat, and talking to his customers as they eat.
Set in a bland strip mall that's strangely typical of the diverse neighborhood, Mawadda doesn't offer much in the way of traditional ambience. The bright interior holds just a few booths and tables, and decoration is limited to a small wire shelving system that holds cans of fava beans and hummus, and packets of spices for falafel. A refrigerator hums in the corner, keeping its mango lassis, guava nectars, and Diet Cokes safe from the heat of the nearby kitchen.
What the place lacks in decor, however, it makes up for in welcome. On my first visit, Rami offers me samples of four of his homemade sauces to help me decide which I'd like on my salad. Unfortunately, the tasting only makes my choice more difficult. The first is an earthy hummus, rich and nutty, with a strangely pleasant chalky feel on the tongue. It's followed by a spoonful of Rami's garlic sauce, which he says he concocted for his daughter; it's spicy, pungent, and creamy. It's also laced with so much garlic that I taste it all afternoon. The tzatziki, on the other hand, has the ideal proportions of garlic and refreshing cucumber; it's some of the best I've had anywhere. Last is pomegranate vinaigrette, which tastes like candy and would be delicious over ice cream. I choose the tzatziki.
All Mawadda's food is cooked to order by Rami, so it takes some time. I'm not in a hurry, so I pour myself a cup of spicy, sugary chai ($1) from the dispenser and sit down in one of the booths to watch the traffic go by on the street. After about 20 minutes, my Sultani platter ($11.99) arrives. Three kebabs loll on a bed of fragrant, steaming rice. The best by far is the chicken, marinated in a blend of 25 spices. The resulting matrix of flavors is alternately sweet and piquant, and leaves me wanting more. Assertive chunks of lamb overwhelm their seasoning, but go down very nicely when dunked in the rich garlic sauce. The third kebab is minced beef and lamb with some onion that Rami shapes with his hands around a steel sword and then grills over the fire. I coat it with the remains of my tzatziki and eat the whole thing in about 10 seconds.
On another visit, I try Mawadda's chicken shawarma ($7.99) at Rami's urging. I am slightly disappointed, as the turmeric seems to elbow the other spices out of the way. It's tasty, but I miss the complexity of the kebab's seasoning. The gyros ($4.99) are another matter. With tender, perfectly cooked seasoned lamb shaved from a vertical roaster, creamy tzatziki, and a few crisp tomatoes tossed in for good measure, it's a sumptuous, messy delight.
As I consider the menu, Rami laughs. "I make the best falafel in Washington. You should try some." After devouring the falafel salad ($6.99), I'm a believer. It's crispy but not greasy, dense but not heavy, and dry but not dusty. With a little (I know, I know) tzatziki (have I mentioned how good it is?), the falafel salad just may be the perfect vegetarian meal.
In Arabic, mawadda means the love that comes with friendship. During the few hours I spend in his restaurant, Rami talks to me about his three kids, his cooking, and his struggles to make Mawadda a success. It hasn't been easy, he says, working 14-hour days and barely breaking even. He's even considering calling it quits, which is a shame because Mawadda serves some of the best Mediterranean food I've had in the city. So here is my plea to you devotees of falafel, adorers of shawarma, and fans of roasted, rotating, seasoned lamb: Venture down to Hillman City, look past the strip malls, turn right near the Mexican grocery, and walk into Mawadda Cafe. Wherever you're coming from, you'll feel right at home.