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.”
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.
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.
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
HOURS: Every day: 11am-9pm
OWNER: Abdullah Tobasi
ENTREE RANGE: $6.95-15.95
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No