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Tahini Street Food duo in expansion mode with new stores, coffeehouse

Mahmoud "Moody" Barkawi slices chicken shawarma at Tahini Street Food
Mahmoud “Moody” Barkawi slices chicken shawarma on a vertical rotisserie at Tahini Street Food in Kearny Mesa.
(Sergio Gomez)

San Diego buddies Osama Shabaik and Moody Barkawi gave up careers in the law to open their shawarma business in 2013

Back in their teens, San Diego buddies Osama Shabaik and Mahmoud “Moody” Barkawi talked a lot about opening their own shawarma restaurant using recipes unique to their own Egyptian and Syrian cultures. They’d even figured out the name for their future enterprise: Tahini Street Food.

But after high school, their lives went separate ways. Barkawi earned a degree in criminal justice from San Diego State and was accepted into a sheriff’s department training academy, following in his family’s long tradition of public service. Meanwhile, Shabaik made it into Harvard Law School, but realized midway through his studies that being a lawyer no longer appealed to him.

So in the summer of 2013, the two men decided they’d give their teen Tahini dream a shot. If they failed after three months, they’d return to their careers in the law. Instead, they succeeded, and they’ve never looked back. In October, the now-33-year-old entrepreneurs moved Tahini into a new Kearny Mesa location that’s twice the size of their original store. In December, they opened their second location near Sacramento. And in late May, they will open their next concept: Finjan, a specialty coffee house and dessert shop that will sell espresso-based and Turkish coffees as well as knafeh, a Middle Eastern phyllo and cheese pastry. Finjan means “coffee cup” in Arabic.

Osama Shabaik, co-founder of Tahini Street Food in Kearny Mesa.
(Sergio Gomez)

Barkawi and Shabaik say they’re proud of the business they built from scratch and they work well together as a team. Barkawi is the service-minded people person who oversees operations behind the counter, while Shabaik is the more introverted contracts, numbers and logistics guy who’s happiest behind a computer. Besides running their thriving business together, the two men are also active volunteers in the local Arab-speaking community, helping recent Syrian and Iraqi refugees with paperwork, life skills and, in many cases, jobs at Tahini.

Shabaik, whose heritage is Egyptian, was born in Baltimore and grew up in San Diego. Barkawi, who’s Syrian, was born and raised in Paterson, N.J. and moved with his family to San Diego in his mid-teens. They met at a local mosque and bonded over video games, trips to the gym and their love for Mediterranean food, though both felt that the shawarma and falafel they found at local restaurants was too generic for their taste.

A falafel rice bowl dish at Tahini Street Food.
(Katie Fisher )

Tahini’s concept, honed over three years at farmers markets and a food booth at a Pacific Beach gas station, is intentionally simple. Diners can choose from three proteins — chicken or beef shawarma or vegetarian falafel — in either a pita, a rice bowl or a salad, with choice of seven house-made tahini sauces and dips. The chicken shawarma is marinated and cooked rotisserie-style in-house with all-natural, cage-free halal chickens and the beef shawarma is also made in-house with all-natural halal Angus beef. Shabaik created the recipe for the pitas, which are baked in-house daily, and the herb-rich falafel is Egyptian-style, made with fava beans rather than garbanzos and fried to order.

For customers who can’t decide there are three specialty pitas: The O.G., a traditional Syrian-style shawarma preparation; the M.T.W., an Egyptian, or “Mother of the World"-style prep; and the top-selling Esquire, which honors Shabaik’s accomplishments of earning his Harvard Law degree and passing the California bar exam a few years back. During a 2019 visit to Tahini for his Food Network series “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” host Guy Fieri called the Esquire pita a “killer” sandwich.

The Tahini menu also features a few appetizers like pita chips with za’atar and sumac seasoning, fried halloumi (goat’s milk) cheese sticks and Tahini fries, which is a shawarma version of carne asada fries.

Two things that aren’t on the Tahini menu are desserts and coffee, which will be served instead at Finjan, which is opening right next door in former Tahini location. Shabaik said supply chain delays are holding up the opening of the coffee shop. They’re awaiting shipment of several Turkish sand coffee machines, which brew the sweetened coffee in copper cups on a heated bed of sand.

Tahini Street Food

Where: 9119 Clairemont Mesa Blvd., Suite H, San Diego

Phone: (858) 779-3272

Online: tahinistreetfood.com

Tahini fries, left, and beef shawarma pita at Tahini Street Food in Kearny Mesa.
(Sergio Gomez)


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