It’s a curious crowd inside Fatima’s Grill in Downey. There’s an older Lebanese family at one of the communal tables in the middle of the room, and a happy young Latino couple nestled up against the far glass window, keeping one eye on the soccer game coming from the hanging TVs. Former Utah Jazz player Bryon Russell, who Michael Jordan put to the floor en route to his sixth and final NBA championship, waits for his order at a small table in the corner. But really, the energy of the room comes from two college-age friends with the stack of food spread between them.
On the table is a collection of some of greater Los Angeles’s most inventive, and often outrageous, food. There’s a plate of seasoned fries topped with cheese and Hot Cheetos, the classic kid’s processed food brand that in recent years has boomed in popularity to become the best-selling snack in the Frito-Lay’s portfolio. A quesadilla the size of a wakeboard oozes even more cheese along with bell peppers and onions.
There’s shredded brisket and gravy poured over a tin of yet more fries, and a shawarma burrito sits not far away. The two friends, locals from Downey or nearby South Gate, can’t possibly finish all of their food, but that’s hardly the point. Besides, they’re watching something together on a cell phone anyway, gossiping about friends and lazily pulling at those soaked Hot Cheetos without giving them a full glance.
Owner Ali Elreda is paying attention to them because, in many ways, they are exactly what Fatima’s Grill seems to be looking for in a customer base — young, social media savvy, and eager to experience the kind of big, colorful foods that play so well on Instagram. But truth be told, the story of Elreda and the restaurant itself goes much, much deeper.
Founded in summer 2016 as a simple taco shop, Fatima’s Grill has slowly expanded its menu to coincide with the rise of saturated stunt foods on Instagram. In September of last year Elreda began selling Hot Cheetos as an add-on to top, stuff, or dust over just about any meal, and now those dishes are among the most popular menu items he carries. Fans come in to seek processed Cheetos stuffed inside breakfast burritos and quesadillas, or laced on top of hot dogs and burgers. Hours run 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, and its rare for Fatima’s Grill to not have at least a few fans in the compact strip mall dining room, eager to eat whatever concoction Elreda comes up with next.
“I really just try to take it one day at a time,” the burly Elreda says in relation to the increasing popularity of the restaurant. But he’s also speaking personally, almost monastically, for himself. Taking it a day at a time was Elreda’s personal mantra while serving seven-and-a-half years in prison for intent to distribute methamphetamines and cocaine.
Elreda doesn’t shy away from his past — “I got mixed in with the wrong kind of people,” he’ll say — but he’s also keen to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Opening a restaurant without any real cooking background might seem daunting for most, but with a grandmother’s blessing and years spent in her home kitchen as a child in nearby Bell, Elreda figured it couldn’t be any harder than what he’s already known. And so Fatima’s was born, a mix of the chef/owner’s own Lebanese heritage, his Mexican cultural community upbringing, and years spent behind bars finding inventive things to do with the limited snack foods available on the inside.
The resulting restaurant now feeds a couple hundred people a day or more, dragging Instagrammers and locals to a corner strip mall plot off Firestone Boulevard. The menu is filled with Lebanese-Mexican variations on a theme, plus those ubiquitous Hot Cheetos. But look closer and notice platters of grilled chicken done almost like Lebanese shish tawook, tightly rolled beef shawarma wraps, falafel, and classic Mexican street tacos on corn tortillas. All of the meat is halal too, which adds a little cost to the bottom line but also ensures that the most possible people can come in and enjoy a meal.
The stunt food fries and shawarma breakfast burritos are certainly a core part of the bottom line, but the heart of Fatima’s Grill can be found elsewhere on the colorful menus, and inside every smile Elreda flashes to the growing lines as he works the register or ducks back to the kitchen.
And, as those two young diners watching videos on their phone as they snack on fries may know, there is real heart and subtle soul in the saturated photos of drizzling sauces and oozing cheese that Fatima’s Grill puts out on Instagram. Watch for the videos of Elreda himself preparing the food, dancing along to the music in the background and carrying the smile of a man who truly is ecstatic to be front and center for the moment he’s found himself in. What you don’t see, off screen, is everything else, the hard nights and sweat of the kitchen, the stress of staying top-of-mind with Instagram’s notoriously fickle food audience. But Elreda isn’t the type to complain — he’s just taking it one day at a time.
7840 Firestone Blvd.