Filfillah Market & Restaurant in Northeast Minneapolis

sign at Filfillah

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Even with a bright red sign against its sand-colored facade, Filfillah Market & Restaurant is easy to miss, particularly since it looks similar to so many others on the ethnic food-rich stretch of Central Ave. in Columbia Heights.

Only three photos of food appear on the restaurant’s website, and two of them are blurry. On a recent Thursday afternoon, at the height of the lunch rush, not one table was taken. All of those factors should add up to an eatery that’s unpopular for a reason, but instead, it’s mystifying, because Filfillah (or Filfilah, as it’s spelled on its website) turns out to be one of the best — perhaps even the best — purveyors of shawarma in the Cities.

Behind the counter, the large, slowly rotating hunks of meat look glossy and succulent, without the constant fat drip seen at so many gyro places. Filfillah chef Ali Kolcak (below) proudly presents them as if they’re a gift to each customer. “This is the real thing,” he says. “Never frozen, never. Made fresh every day. I just made these this morning. No one else has shawarma like this.”

Ali Kolcak and falafel wrap from Filfillah

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Ironically, during this particular lunch hour, a food wholesaler stopped in to pitch Kolcak on the idea of buying frozen, pre-made shawarma in bulk, to be delivered weekly. The chef listened politely, but his arms were crossed in front of him like a Turkish general defending his border.

What he makes is definitely worth the defense. The lamb and beef shawarma, made with techniques and spices that Kolcak used while growing up in Turkey, is rich and flavorful, and surprisingly tender. No grayish, tough gyro experience here: Filfillah eschews the type of fillers that Kolcak believes are too common in the shawarma business, and which make for lackluster meat.

Also fresh is the tahini sauce, served on the side with a plate of shawarma ($11, below), salad, rice pilaf, and pita bread, or doused generously inside the wraps. Although the yogurt-based sauce is easy to make, the cool tartness of Filfillah’s elevates the eatery to yet another level. More extra credit points: The pita is shaped like a calzone, smells like pizza dough, and tastes like buttery happiness.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Equally delicious, the chicken shawarma has the same tenderness and full flavors, with the added advantage of a slightly crispy exterior. In the wrap ($7), this choice really shines, since the chunks are thicker than their lamb and beef counterparts, making for a robust sandwich. Because Kolcak stuffs the wrap so full, a diner isn’t likely to have that moment at the sandwich’s end where all that’s left is a chunk of dry lavash bread. Instead, nearly every bite has the same blend of flavors and ingredients, which is a feat in itself.

For dessert, Kolcak talks up his Turkish coffee as he delivers it in a tiny cup. He fusses over it like a grandmother making sure her efforts are appreciated, but it’s difficult not to praise his work. With a bittersweet, earthy tone and that notable sludge on the bottom, the coffee is a nice, post-meal touch.

baklava at Filfillah

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

But the truly shiny moment, the one that makes even that divine bread fade into memory, is the baklava ($2 for two). Made fresh on site, the cylindrical favorite has the usual components: honey, cinnamon, phyllo dough, butter, and apparently, a secret and highly addictive substance. The phyllo doesn’t flake or crumble, it just melts, softly, into the honey and pretty soon, you find yourself asking Kolcak how much an entire tray of baklava costs (call ahead, he says, he can make you a deal).

Certainly, Filfillah has its disadvantages: The view from the outdoor seating is of a Dollar Store and Rainbow Foods and the restaurant’s name, too, seems to be both less-than-memorable and confusing. The attached market isn’t too busy, either, and a sad, empty meat case and spare shelves don’t help the grocery’s attractiveness quotient. But of all the drawbacks, the food isn’t one of them. Although Filfillah has only been open about a year, here’s hoping that Kolcak and his culinary expertise will keep those shawarma racks spinning long into the future.

BEST BET: The fresh-tasting shawarma may be the best in the state; ditto the addictive, freshly made baklava.

Filfillah Market Restaurant & Grill
4301 Central Ave
Columbia Heights, MN 55421
763.781.2222
HOURS:
 Every day: 11am-9pm
OWNER: Abdullah Tobasi
BAR: No
ENTREE RANGE: $6.95-15.95
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No

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18 Comments

  1. I’m so glad you wrote this place up! I’ve only been a handful of times, but it’s never been even remotely busy in there and the quality is top notch!

  2. Awesome, I’ll be checking this out soon. Always looking for good Middle Eastern tips.

  3. howard_child10/03/2011Reply

    Agreeing with Kate and author of this post. Been here, empty place but great Falafel wrap – Jerusalem stle. 10 x better than holy land and 100 x better than Falafel King! I do hope it can keep itself open. I know that it had a lot of drama opening a few years back. The building owner and the restaurant owner butted heads and even legal damages on the building.

  4. Now if only that dang Lowry Bridge would open so us on the North side can much more easily hit Central’s ever expanding gems (Sonic not included…!) Definitely worth the zig-zag to try this soon.

  5. Living in St. Paul, I make the drive up Central Avenue at least two days a week for the wonderful food. Normally I enter a restaurant and only eat 1 or 2 things from their menu, but not at Filfilah….it is hard to pick out what my favorite is. For a unique pizza experience I order the Pita Pie (made to order) but for the meat experience I share a Mixed Grill with friends. If you are wondering what the Mixed Grill is, just stop in with a few friends and share the experience.

  6. It is hard to read this wonderful review without jumping in my car and driving up for a mouth-watering lunch. I was there yesterday and shared a Combo platter with a friend. The taste is heavenly and the hummus is the best, too. Ali had just made a fresh batch. He makes fresh bread for each person’s meal and it is sometimes so warm to the touch, I have to wait for it to cool a bit.

    I eat there at least 2-3 times per week and I live in St. Paul–but it is so so worth the drive.

    Please give Filfilah a try–I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

  7. Thank you for the review! I am always looking for good Middle Eastern food – seems like Holy Land and Felafel King have gone downhill a little since expanding. It’s encouraging to see the endorsements in the comments, so I will head up there soon.

  8. I went there tonight after reading this article. I really loved it…I don’t have much more to add other than to agree that it’s really exceptionally good. Possibly the best baklava I’ve ever had. And really huge portions. Thanks for the great tip.

  9. I went for lunch today. It was great! The meat is tender, yet has a nice crispy outside. YUM!

  10. I was also there for lunch today. I’ll have to say that this guy is the real deal. I’ve had a lot of shawarma in my day. There are some good places in Chicago and Paris and I’d have to say that this place stacks up nicely. I had the chicken shawarma wrap but he talked me into his homemade bread, which was awesome, so it turned it more into a sandwich. I’ll be back for sure, willing to make the trek from South Minneapolis. I would love if he opened a place closer to me and he hinted something along those lines. Oh yeah, he gave me a sample of the baklava and I immediately put in an order to go. Quick correction – it’s $3 for two pieces of baklava but still totally worth it.

  11. Just wanted to add my two cents about this place. I always heed the advice of Heavy Table, but today I was compelled to take immediate action and bring my brother to lunch at Filfillah. Blown away. Tried the chicken shawarma (was also talked into the “special bread”) and was completely impressed. Like other readers have said, this place is in another league from Holy Land and the likes of the rest of them.

    Wrote a review on Yelp http://www.yelp.com/biz/filfilah-market-and-restaurant-columbia-heights and others should do. I did notice that the business name is spelled differently on Yelp than their signage suggests. This is unfortunate and I hope it doesn’t deter people from Filfillah because man is it worth it.

  12. youssef elmasry10/08/2011Reply

    he is the best chef ever ! :)

  13. That’s not Tahini; it’s Tzatziki! The Turks call it Cacik (pronounced similarly). That’s the yogurt/cucumber/garlic sauce; sometimes with some mint or other fresh herbs. Tahini is ground chickpeas and olive oil.

    Otherwise, though, you’re spot-on. Filfillah is fantastic!

  14. cmfrtblynmb10/12/2011Reply

    This place is the real deal.Doner (or gyro) is really good. I am from Turkey and it is top notch even in turkish standarts, it is a gyro-doner you would hard time finding in Turkey, meat is juicy and it is not some grounded god-knows-what. And chicken, ah that juicy chicken shish! Normally americans think of grilled chicken as a healthy but juiceless and tasteless alternative to fried chicken. It is not the case here. It is juicy, and full of flavor.

    I am not writing this because I am just some turkish guy doing a favor to some other turkish guy. I have been to turkish, arabic..etc restaurants and I can say this based on my experience: we are lucky to have this guy in Minneapolis.

    One final note: Try “kunefe” as your dessert. You will shed tears of happiness.

  15. Pick up October Vita.MN and read the full page article on Filfilah Restaurant. Thanks Vita.MN for publishing it.

    http://www.vita.mn/venue_detail.php?venue_id=7672

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