Tucked to one side of Highway 72 is a restaurant unusual among its fried-catfish, cheeseburger-and-fries, greasy-spoon counterparts. But like many Southern stories of starting fresh, JT’s Falafel and Kababs began with a category five hurricane now more than a decade past.
Iskander Al-Qawwas — known to many as “Alex” — and wife Manal left behind their home and business when they moved north after Katrina hit New Orleans. There, the couple had owned a restaurant that served Cajun cuisine — “neighborhood food,” Alex says. The business model was not new to him; Alex had been opening restaurants since the 1990s — twice even in his birth country of Jordan. So immediately upon arriving in northeast Mississippi, the restaurateur began conducting market research: He worked in factories for about a year to first “understand how the town works,” he says. Then Alex and Manal decided to go a route far from what Corinthians would consider “neighborhood food.”
“She always wanted to do something different than the hamburgers and catfish,” Alex says of his wife, a nurse. “She wanted to do something healthier.”
But their inspiration to try a Mediterranean menu stemmed from more than just its health benefits.
“When we came here, we decided to do something like from the old recipes that we grew up on,” he says. “Family recipes that go back years and years and years.”
In late 2006, the couple set that plan into motion when they moved into a tiny boxcar of a building near Arby’s and Summer Tyme Sno on Highway 72. They painted it bright blue and named it with their sons Jamil and Tarik’s first initials.
Curious customers soon became regulars, returning to JT’s Falafel and Kababs’ pick-up window time and time again over the course of the restaurant’s first year. And time and time again, Alex heard the same complaint.
“People wanted to sit down and eat the food while it was hot instead of taking it to go,” he says. “And that’s when we decided to move.”
The Al-Qawwases upgraded their operation to a unit within the Open Market antiques building — further east on the same highway — where they have been for the past eight years. Another son — Zaine, whose first initial Alex has tacked onto the ‘J’ and the ‘T’ — and an expansion into the next unit later, Alex still loves what he does. For him, food is synonymous with family. Growing up in Kuwait for much of his childhood with a large family of aunts, uncles, and siblings, Alex has fond memories associated with the rituals of cooking.
“The old grandmas and the old ladies that used to cook — honestly, if you think about it, we’d always see them in the kitchen,” Alex remembers. “We’d go to work or school, and when we come back they’re in the kitchen and the steam is coming out and the food is smelling good.”
It’s that love of both family and food that Alex wants to promote with his restaurant. With his signature enthusiasm, he greets each customer, usually by name. Murals on the wall — painted by an artist who once waited tables there — depict an old-world scene of camels and ancient cities. “You know, like Aladdin or something like that,” Alex says, smiling. The food is fresh and prepared to order by Alex and his sous chef — hot falafel and creamy hummus, Greek salads sprinkled with dried mint and topped with feta and crisp vegetables, fish tacos and house-made sweet potato fries, kebabs hot off the grill.
But Alex’s fascination with food doesn’t stop when the restaurant closes. Each weekend, he gathers his family for a Sunday feast. He’s teaching his three sons — 11, 9, and 6 years old now — about more than just cooking.
“Whoever wants to come to my house from the family, they can,” he says. “It’s a must that everybody gathers around the table and eats.”