GRAND RAPIDS — Dining choices downtown got a bit more diverse recently when the Olive Express opened on Monroe Center late last month.
The new restaurant at 134 Monroe Center, across from Rosa Parks Circle, offers a Syrian-based Mediterranean cuisine five days a week beginning at 11 a.m.
Sam Rashed and Hossam Helmy are partners in Olive Express, and they located the restaurant downtown to fill a flavor void.
“It’s the financial district and people are pressed for time. And I feel that the hamburgers and subs get old after a while,” said Rashed. “Looking at the demographics in the area I found that there is nothing like this restaurant around, and I figure people can use a little variety.”
Rashed is a third-generation restaurateur, having learned the business from his uncle and grandfather. His grandfather brought many of his recipes here from his native Syria and his uncle owns Sultan’s Place in East Lansing and Sultan’s Express in downtown Lansing.
“We have a line out the door every day Monday through Friday from about 11 until 2 o’clock,” he said of Sultan’s Express, the eatery the Olive Express is patterned after.
Helmy is the head chef at Olive Express, a position he held at Sultan’s for five years.
“We’re fast at lunch. We’re right up there with a Subway or a McDonald’s, if not quicker than them,” said Rashed. “By the time someone pays, the food is ready.”
Rashed said the Chicken Shawarma is the restaurant’s specialty.
“It is marinated dark-meat chicken on a vertical broiler, almost like a gyro, where it’s thinly shaved,” he said.
Chicken Shawarma is served as a luncheon combo with rice, hummus and a house salad for $6.90, and Olive Express offers a Chicken Shawarma salad for $6.25. Hummus also is a specialty.
“It’s a type of paste, chick peas and sesame seeds with tahini sauce. It’s good stuff.”
Olive Express also has daily specials. When Rashed spoke with the Business Journal, the special was an all-white-meat chicken stir-fry.
The restaurant serves vegetarian dishes, chicken, lamb and beef sandwiches, seven kinds of salads, and seven luncheon combos that feature chicken, beef and lamb choices.
“I prepare everything fresh in the morning,” said Rashed.
The restaurant also has a juice bar with 20 fresh juices that range from mango to guava to lemonade. Customers can mix their own drink by combining three or four juices, and they can also create smoothies.
For now, the restaurant is open weekdays from 11 a.m. until 6 p.m. But with all the events planned for Monroe Center this summer, Rashed said Olive Express would expand its hours and stay open later on event nights.