Looking through the menu at Fatima's Grill in Downey, California, you'd never guess it was mostly designed and envisioned within the walls of a prison cell. No, they don't serve Ja Rule's "Prison Casserole" or makeshift chocolate cakes, but its owner, Ali Elreda, spent almost eight years in The Federal Correctional Institution, Safford, working the kitchen, and dreaming of a day he could let his passion for food shine.
Fatima's Grill beautifully marries Elreda's Lebanese roots, with an appreciation for Mexican food that he gained during his time behind bars. He chose to work in the prison's kitchen where he spent most of his days learning about cooking food (which he knew nothing about), Mexican culture from his fellow inmates, and how to be efficient under the pressure of having to cook for over 1,000 inmates.
“I was in the kitchen five days a week, from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m," Elreda said. "I would write down certain things that I came up with or would invent, and I had 1,500 inmates that I had to feed, so if I could please them, I knew I could please anybody.”
Elreda is very much open about his incarceration, because it is a chapter of his life he has comfortably put in the past. In the early 2000s, he was young, made some mistakes with bad company, and slipped up to the tune of 7-plus years of imprisonment for intent to distribute methamphetamines and cocaine.
Not an ideal path, but he regrets nothing, as his experiences led to his current success as a restaurant owner.
Without his checkered past, there would be no Shawarma Quesarritos, Flamin' Hot Cheetos-topped carne asada fries, or tacos crowned with his hot sauce — which was inspired by ingredients straight from the Federal Correctional Institution, Safford commissary.
“I learned everything inside," Elreda said. "My hot sauce came from the prison commissary...I had to go back to the place where I did time, just to get a copy of the commissary items. You can’t find those out here on the street.”
Without his past he also would have never met Jorge, the savvy cook who mans the kitchen at Fatima's Grill, and has been by Elreda's side from day one, helping him make these tasty and photo-friendly dishes.
One look at the Fatima's Grill Instagram account, and you can tell Elreda is quite an eccentric character who's having a blast feeding the city of Downey, CA. With every video of him cooking, bumping Cardi B and dancing around in the limited space within his kitchen, you get a glimpse of not only his infectious attitude, but his extensive and mouthwatering menu.
The menu itself can look a little intimidating, but at its core, the restaurant consists of burritos, tacos, quesadillas, wraps, and fries. From there, you can top or stuff anything with his halal-based meats, and even Flamin' Hot Cheetos, if you'd like. All in all, he's found a formula tailor-made for Instagram success, not only getting the Foodbeast seal of approval when we paid a visit, but getting rave reviews on Yelp, Google, and EZ Cater.
Elreda admits he'll draw you in with his giant burritos, and Hot Cheeto mixtures, but he'll keep you with the quality of ingredient and simple halal dishes such as the restaurant's chicken kabobs and shawarma wraps.
All Elreda needed was an opportunity, and with help from family, lessons through a rough past, and a vision of blending two cultures together, the final result was a pretty special experience for customers.
"I said, 'I’m gonna take the best of both worlds when I get out… let me see if I can put this together. Tacos, gyros, shawarma, quesadillas, let’s put it together,'" Elreda said. "And it worked."