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On Vashon Island, Community Is Found at a Family-Run Syrian Food Cart

Iyad Alati and Safa Jneidi’s dishes have grown a dedicated following, especially from a local library

On a sunny January morning on Vashon Island, librarians on their lunch break stretch out in a socially distanced line at Iyad’s Syrian Grill. The food cart can easily be spotted across the street from the library even on the rainiest Washington days, its bright turmeric-colored awning stretching out to welcome customers. Since Iyad Alati and Safa Jneidi opened the cart in April 2019, their recipes have grown a dedicated following, especially among the island’s librarians.

The staccato rhythm of Iyad’s spatulas mingles with the sound of neighbors chatting through face masks. Aromas of garlic mixed with warm spices and honeyed saffron are thick in the winter air as the chef works quickly to prepare another order of lamb shawarma. Diners can taste the earthy flavor of mushrooms in the shawarma, which contrasts with the sweetness of plump raisins, each dish nestled beside rich swirls of hummus.

Iyad is so dedicated to his customers and loyal regulars that he travels four hours each week to pick up certain halal ingredients, plus spices, and the prep process can often take up a whole day. After moving to Vashon a few years ago, Iyad and Safa have woven local ingredients with Syrian and Turkish recipes from their home city of Aleppo, a historic Silk Road trade center known for its culinary history.

“In Aleppo, it’s like every family has a restaurant in their home, and Iyad has always loved cooking,” says Safa. The Alatis once owned a 400-year-old shop in the historic Al-Madina Souq Market, where they supplied designers with silk, cashmere, and other textiles. Before the Syrian civil war broke out in March 2011, Iyad periodically traveled to Thailand, Dubai, and Egypt for fabric and fashion ideas.

When the Alatis fled to Turkey during the war, Iyad found work in a restaurant to support his family and discovered that he loved cooking professionally. He had always enjoyed cooking at home, but working in a restaurant taught him how to do efficient prep work, and he learned how to stay organized and calm under the pressure of a crowd at peak hours. The Alatis waited in limbo in Turkey, hoping to be selected from the UN refugee lottery. Finally, after three long years, they were called for an interview. “America chose us,” Safa says. She smiles.

After moving to a suburb south of Seattle to live with a relative in January 2017, Iyad was urged by a friend to enroll in a culinary arts program called Project Feast. The nonprofit’s mission is to empower immigrant and refugee cooks, preparing them to thrive as entrepreneurs in the restaurant industry. Once Iyad graduated from Project Feast, another Syrian family invited the Alatis to an information session hosted by the Vashon Resettlement Committee (VRC). “Everyone brought food to share,” Safa says, describing the exciting scene of hopeful families.

Smoke rises from a flattop grill piled with lamb shawarma and red peppers.
Lamb shawarma sizzling at the food cart
Sabra Boyd

By August 2017, the family learned they had been selected by VRC, and moved to Vashon, the Puget Sound island that is connected by a network of ferries to Seattle, Tacoma, and Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. “When we came to Vashon, we saw a very great community,” Safa says, adding that the schools are good and their children enjoy living somewhere safe with lots of room to play. For the first year, VRC helped the Alatis settle into life on Vashon Island by providing classes to study English, assistance searching for jobs, and help finding a home in the community of 10,000. Iyad beams when he talks about his children learning to care for their new baby chickens during quarantine.

Initially, Iyad and Safa had hoped to open a textiles business and clothing boutique in the Seattle region, like they had in Syria. “But it was so hard,” Safa says. She shows a photo of silk fabric, woven with elaborately detailed floral and geometric designs, that she had hoped to sell here. Looking at the beautiful patterns, it’s easy to imagine how popular their boutique could have been if the Alatis had been able to open a store. Rent was too expensive, though, and navigating the challenges of importing textiles prohibitive. The couple also explored becoming online vendors, but the obstacles to learning how to do that proved to be too great. Their shop in Aleppo had thrived for hundreds of years in the same market. They had never needed to attract customers on the internet.

In 2019, after working in several restaurants around Vashon Island, Iyad found that he wanted to share Syrian food with the community and be more independent. The couple began catering and opened their food cart across the street from the Vashon Library, where they serve savory lamb, tender chicken, and rich vegetarian shawarma, as well as falafel, salads, and sandwiches. “We were inspired by new ingredients when we moved to Washington,” Safa recounts. They now incorporate local “Vashonese’’ ingredients, as she likes to say, including mushrooms and the popular combination of grilled peppers and onions. Beautifully plated takeout is no easy feat, but Iyad expertly garnishes each dish with a crown of crisp purple cabbage, set in the box against the rice’s saffron hue.

A closeup of flaky baklava, topped with chopped pistachios
The baklava at Syrian Grill
Sabra Boyd

Since the first COVID-19 case was announced in Washington almost a year ago, all of the family’s scheduled catering events for festivals and parties have been canceled. But business at the food cart has remained steady. Iyad and Safa have plans to open a food truck in Tacoma in April 2021; it will be a celebration of their second year in business. Although they are still searching for a perfect location, they are eager to share Aleppo cuisine with their Tacoma neighbors as the weather grows sunnier.

Eventually, the couple would like to open a restaurant where they can expand the menu to feature less-familiar items, like Istanbul-style barbecue. Safa explains that this particular cuisine is characterized by its lavish variety, featuring an array of kebabs. But for now, they are keeping the menu at the outdoor cart simple while the business grows.

Most customers who wait in line punctuate their orders with “And baklava, please!” Every child holding their parent’s hand in line requests the phyllo pastry — honey drizzled between the golden layers, topped with a peridot garnish of chopped pistachios, spiced with herbaceous cardamom and cinnamon. Because the Syrian recipe is sweetened only with honey, it highlights the savory flavors more than other versions of the dish.

Customers ask about the family’s new baby. Behind his face mask, Iyad’s eyes light up as he updates his small audience on the new addition to the family. Two parents picking up lunch with their kids, soccer balls in tow, cross the street to have a picnic of falafel sandwiches next to the library. After ordering, another couple walks toward the nearby park for a romantic date in the afternoon sun. Spending time with friends and family, overhearing librarians discussing a new book recommendation, and even socializing six feet apart outside with strangers all feel like limited luxuries these days.

It is a rare sunny, cloudless day. You can almost smell the first blossoms of spring. The grill’s steam curls around Iyad’s hands as he prepares the next order. He cleans his station between customers, and each dish brings the family closer to opening their new food truck, and possibly even the full-fledged restaurant they always dreamed about. First thing’s first, though: There are hungry customers waiting — and a small island to feed.