Take a fast right when you enter the door at 1651 Union Ave., and you'll pass a collection of candy bars and incense on your way to the cigarette counter.
Take a few more steps inside, and you can get a shot of wheat grass at Smooth Moves, or, a bit farther in, a shot of espresso at the High Point Coffee bar.
Head to the south wall, and your horizon broadens to include the kitchen at Sean's Cafe, which serves an extensive list of well-rendered traditional Middle Eastern dishes — gyros, stuffed grape leaves, lamb kebab.
Then turn left, and you're at Balewa's Vegan Gourmet, where you can get veggie burgers, carrot salad and quinoa in cups or wraps.
And scattered on shelves around the interior is a random collection of grocery items -- cans of tahini, boxes of couscous, cellophane sacks of cinnamon and sage.
It's a contemporary urban version of the pleasantly chaotic Old World marketplace.
At Smooth Moves, of course, you can also get cold concoctions of yogurt, fruit, juice and vitamin boosters. And most local folks will be glad to learn that the Oxford, Miss.-based High Point coffee roasters have staked a new outpost in Midtown. Give this one time to brew: Monday is the first official day of operation. I overheard the Sean's staff getting some pretty basic barista
instructions last week, such as, "Here's the difference between a latte and a cappuccino."
The heart of this food emporium is Sean's, a grill that's been at the location for more than a decade and now is owned by Mohammad Halimah, a Palestinian who has lived in California, Atlanta and Chattanooga, and moved to Memphis for his children's schooling. Halimah has adjusted some of the old recipes on the menu at Sean's, and says that now the meat is halal, in other words, conforms to Islamic dietary law.
Sean's falafel plate ($7.15) is exemplary: The ground chickpea balls are crisply fried, and served with fluffy, seasoned rice pilaf and sides of creamy tahini, or ground sesame. There's also a lemony hummus, and a fresh tabouleh that favors parsley over bulgar wheat.
The marinade used for the chicken, beef and lamb in the sovlaki and shawarma plates ($7.95 and $8.25) is subtle, the portions are generous. The falafel, sovlaki and shawarma come in pita sandwiches as well.
There are plenty of vegetarian options on Sean's menu. The grilled vegetables are a satisfying blend of zucchini, green and red peppers, potatoes and carrots, with a distinct touch of cumin in the mix. Among the appetizers, the baba ghanoush ($4.05) — eggplant and tahini — and the spanakopita ($3.45) — essentially a savory spinach pie on filo pastry, here with a touch of clove or cinnamon — were our favorites, although the baba ghanoush came straight from a refrigerator. It improved as it came down to room temperature.
On to Balewa's Vegan Gourmet, where the "Original Live Burger" ($6.99) tops the menu. The burger is dense but crumbly, and taken by itself, I have to say, it tastes like something that's good for you. But if you put it with the sprouted grain bun, and add lettuce, onion and tomato, plus Balewa's walnut spread, it tastes good. Ask them to hold the ketchup — it's better that way. Balewa Bayete, a Louisiana native, says the ingredients in the mix are his personal recipe — some yams, some beets, no soy.
We also tried the Bar-B-Que Portabella ($6.99), marinated grilled mushroom strips on an Ezekiel bun. The ratio of mushroom to bread was a little too low on that sandwich. But the chili quinoa cup ($2.99), a spicy version of the South American grain which has been turning up on superfood lists, is terrific. Balewa also puts spicy quinoa in a nori roll, which he sells from a cold case.
There is a brightly lit dining area that faces out onto Union Avenue. The people working behind the various counters are friendly and helpful.
Sean's Cafe/ Balewa's Vegan Gourmet
Address: 1651 Union
Telephone: 274-3917 for Sean's; 859-0590 for Balewa's
Hours: The grill at Sean's is open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday; Balewa's hours are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Reviewer's choices: At Sean's, the shawarma, falafel and sovlaki plates and pita sandwiches. At Balewa's, the live burger and the chili quinoa.