When Ibby’s Falafel closed down for renovation in 2007, many people in the neighborhood feared it would never reopen. The eatery had become such a fundamental part of the neighborhood that people even put up flyers asking what had happened.
The store located at 303 Grove St. did reopen and better than ever. But the moment had impressed Adman Kwara, the owner, just how important an icon the store had become in downtown Jersey City.
But that was a different downtown than today. Ibby’s arrived in the Grove Street neighborhood in 1996 when the area was still evolving, and somehow found a connection with a population made up of artists, musicians, and others the way his famous uncle had in the West Village in New York City three decades earlier.
The new Ibby’s had gone from funky to a hip limestone and ebony interior and an amazing convex dome over the interior, reminiscent of the Middle Eastern world out of which the store’s food originates.
Since reopening, Ibby’s has added a number of new dishes, including Chicken Shawarma, to the menu. But despite increased costs for ingredients, the menu’s prices haven’t risen significantly.
“We tweaked the prices, but tried not to raise them,” he said.
The falafel sandwich is still only $3, a real bargain, and quite filling.
The eatery won New Jersey Monthly’s Voter Choice Awards five years in a row, and Kwara hopes to win again. He still has a little room on his walls for more food reviews and other plaques.
Learned in New York, but has his own recipes
Born in Syria, Kwara moved with his family to Manhattan in the 1970s when he was nine. When he turned 13, he started to learn the ropes of falafel making at his uncle’s establishment.
But when he opened his own store in Jersey City Heights in 1995, Kwara had his own recipes, most of which he and his mother developed. His mother, who lives in Jackson Township, still comes to the shop from time to time to check on him and his cooking.
Ibby’s (which is Kwara’s nickname) boasts of having fresh food with authentic spices and secret recipes.
“We make all the food fresh on premises,” Kwara said. The store offers a varied menu that includes meat and non-meat, including salads and other food for vegetarians. He has a certificate of Halal slaughter for the meat he uses, which means that it meets all the requirements for treatment of animals as well as the religious customs for Muslim consumption.
As the name implied, the most popular dish is the falafel, which is made from chick peas ground to a paste, rolled into balls and fried, then served on pita bread with vegetables and sauce.
He moved to the current location in 1996. Middle Eastern food was new to Hudson County when he arrived. He was 28 at the time; his son was barely six month old.
“Now he’s nearly 20 and he wants to join the Jersey City Police Department,” Kwara laughed. “Jersey City has been very good to us.”
An icon on Grove Street
People can dine at Ibby’s at one of its three tables or along the window counter, or even on nice days or nights at tables outside. But most of those who come here stop off on their way home from work. The Grove Street PATH station is a block away.
There is usually a steady flow of customers, especially during the evening rush hour. His store opens at 10 a.m. every day and generally remains open to 10 p.m. on week days and slightly past midnight on weekends.
“We’re open 365 days a year,” he said. “Although we’re only open a half day on Thanksgiving.”
The Grove Street area has changed a lot since he arrived here, with many new faces, and a much broader spectrum of customers brought in by new development.
“When we came to Grove Street in 1995, there were no other stores selling Middle Eastern food,” he said.
Downtown was still an unpolished gem slowly evolving into what it has become today.
The roller coaster economy and increased competition has changed the world a little for him. Once almost exclusive to Hudson County, he has competition. But he believes that his product is so superior to everybody else that people will flock to his store once they taste his offerings.
He has expanded his menu over the last few years
“We provide a quality product at a good price,” he said, seeing these as the key to success.
The menu offers two distinctions: sandwiches and platters. Sandwiches come with lettuce and tomato in a pocket pita with tahini sauce. Platters come with hot pitas and tahini sauce. With a meat platter, you also get rice and salad.
The most popular item is the falafel, which costs $3 for the sandwich and $6.50 for the platter. The other vegetarian dishes run $3.50 for sandwiches and $7.50 for platters. Dishes that include two vegetarian offerings such as falafel and tabouli run from $4.50 for sandwiches and $8.50 for a platter. Ibby’s combinations are $5 for sandwiches and $9 for platters, unless you want the all vegetable combo which includes a little bit of everything at $5.75 for the sandwich and $11.95 for the platter.
Most people who only order the falafel have no idea what else they are missing. While falafel is to the Middle East what potatoes are to the Irish (a tasty stable), many of the other dishes provide a much better idea of the complexity and incredible tastes Middle Eastern food can provide.
Indeed, most dinner dishes are rich, but not overwhelming. They have a balanced blend of spices that give each a unique taste
One dish – the Damascus – is a kind of sampler plate that provides a number of delectable items from stuffed grape leaves and hummus to lamb and chicken with succulent sauces.
The meat menu sandwiches run $6 to $6.50, while platters range in cost from $10.50 to $12.95. Ibby’s mixed kabob costs $13.95.
Ibby’s offers a number of side orders that range from $2 for a bag of pita chips to $5.50 for pita chips and hummus. Salads are $7.50 and include Lebanese salad (a new item), feta salad, Greek salad and others.
Ibby’s desserts are almost as famous as his falafel, especially the baklava (a mouthwatering pastry that includes walnuts, pistachio and honey.) The deserts run from $2.25 to $3.
Ibby’s also caters events. For more information call (201)432-2400.
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.