Written by Jamie Dickson | Photographed by Joe Ellis
Yosef Ali chuckles and furrows his brow.
“Ah, it’s been so long,” he says, and smiles as warmly as a cup of Turkish coffee when asked about how Aladdin, his Mediterranean restaurant, came to be.
“It was 2004, and I noticed that Jackson didn’t have a good Mediterranean restaurant,” he says.
The Ethiopian-born Ali lived in various parts of the Middle East before coming to Jackson to work on a Master’s degree at JSU.
“We picked Fondren for several reasons,” he continues. “It’s close to the University Medical Center, which will bring a foreign audience who will bring their American friends.” He also credits the eclectic, quirky nature of the neighborhood as a draw for setting up shop here.
Initially, Aladdin was a 24-hour restaurant with some traditional Mediterranean offerings, in addition to burgers, fries, and other college-crowd food.
After the first eighteen months of operation, Ali decided to revise the menu and format of the restaurant significantly. “That was the only major change in the history of the restaurant,” he says.
Instead of traditional diner food, the menu now focuses on dishes popular in various Middle Eastern counties: tabbouleh salad, gyros, hummus, baba ghanoush, kibbeh, and several lamb offerings.
The lamb chops are my favorite, and I think they’re the best value on the menu,” Ali beams. And lamb itself seems to be an “entry way” into more “exotic” food for customers.
“They’ve had gyros before, at other restaurants or at the state fair,” he says. “That makes them curious about other ways to eat lamb, so they come in here to try something new.”
Ali prides himself on the lack of canned food in the kitchen. He testifies that “95 percent of our food is made from scratch” by a group of dedicated employees who “show up at 10 in the morning, start prepping for lunch, and don’t leave until we’re done cleaning at 10 that night. Then we rest and get ready to start all over again the next day!” And while for some this would be drudgery, Ali exudes joy as he says this
When asked about the future of Aladdin, Ali is confident and excited. “I love the development that’s happening in this neighborhood,” he says.
“No need to move. [Fondren] is a perfect location for what Aladdin is about. If we do expand, I want to make us bigger, right here, right where we are.”
Aladdin Mediterranean Grill is located at 730 Lakeland Drive. Ali has recently opened another restaurant in downtown Jackson, El Centro, a full-service Mexican restaurant.