Do you remember a time, perhaps when you were younger, when you and your friends tried to outdo each other by coming up with the most outlandish restaurant ideas? And even though you may have never admitted it publicly, a part of you wanted your idea to come to fruition, despite how far-fetched it seemed. I have always wondered what if the restaurant concepts hatched by 20-year-olds not only became realities, but game-changing, runaway successes? The answer is Taystee’s Burgers in Dearborn, a place that serves some of the best burgers I have ever tried. And it’s located in a gas station.
It all started when founder and owner Ali Jawad was hanging out in his garage trying to figure out what to do with his life. He had just dropped out of college and obtained a real estate license. But that was going nowhere. “It turns out, no one wants to buy a mansion from a 20-year-old,” Jawad says, laughing. His grandfather Kazem had recently reacquired a gas station that sits at the outer edge of East Dearborn, but the place was in bad shape, with cardboard placed over its broken windows. It also had a dilapidated restaurant inside that at one time had been a Tubby’s, and once served Mexican food. Kazem thought that reopening a restaurant inside might make the gas station more welcoming.
So, he turned to his grandson, and told him he could do whatever he wanted. Jawad had no experience working in restaurants, nor had he come from a family of chefs or restaurateurs. But at the time, in 2014, he was enamored by the success of fast food empires like Five Guys and Nathan’s Famous. His plan was to open one of these chains in Dearborn, and serve halal meat. However, he nixed that idea because it did not feel true to his personality. “What about opening a shawarma place?” I ask Jawad, especially given Dearborn’s high concentration of Arabs. “Nah, too cliché,” he says.
He loved burgers. Eating them. Debating about them. And he wanted to start something that would be, he tells me, “unique.” The Michigan-born Lebanese-American reached out to a distant cousin, Mohamad Nassereddine, who at the time was studying French cuisine at the Schoolcraft Culinary School in Livonia. Nassereddine, who was also born and raised in Michigan, was working at the now shuttered Mashawi Lebanese restaurant and was looking for a change. The two of them formed an unofficial collaboration and in 2014, when Jawad was just 20 and Nassereddine was 27, opened Taystee’s with an investment of about $20,000 from Jawad’s savings. Everything about it was decidedly fun: light colored walls; LCD screens for menus; pictures of all their burgers; and televisions on the walls that would show sports, and never the news. Sure, the burgers had fresh ingredients — something both of them wanted — the duo also wanted the place to be a bit, well, extra. Even the name, Taystee’s, with its odd spelling, is a testament to their spirit of keeping things a bit off kilter.
What catapulted them to citywide recognition, though, came from a mid-day craving by Nassereddine. At the time, they served a burger with nacho cheese on it and sometimes Nassereddine would grab a pack of Doritos and dip them into the cheese. Eventually, that led to him putting it on a burger, which in turn became the Ali’s Notch-Yo-Burger: nacho cheese-flavored chips; Swiss, American, pepper jack, and nacho cheeses; hot sauce; grilled onions; mayonnaise; beef bacon; lettuce; and tomato on an onion bun. “Man, we had like three of those each that day,” Jawad says.
Some have called it stoner food and, after sitting with them for about 15 minutes, I delicately ask about this term. “Yeah, we hear it. It’s munchie food,” Nassereddine says. “I don’t like to go there, though. I just think it’s good, fresh food,” Jawad says. That burger would go on to win Detroit’s coveted Burger Brawl in 2016, beating a field of entrants from across metro Detroit. This fall, Tastyee’s is opening a second location in a strip mall in Dearborn Heights.
So, what does the Ali’s Notch-Yo-Burger taste like? Let’s put it this way: You know those summer superhero movies where you think you are going to see just one action star and then, surprise, another superhero shows up in a cameo, and then another, and then another, only they are not dueling with each other, but rather making each other better? That is what their food is: a merging of all the things you always wanted but never imagined you would see together. Chips, nacho cheese, and halal bacon?
Taystee’s is the place I will miss most from Michigan when I finish my graduate program. The feeling I get when I walk in and see Arab American guys sporting crescent moon tattoos and girls in hijabs doing what they can’t do in so many other restaurants: be loud and take up space. At a time in which immigrants and people of color and queer people and Jewish people are told they might be liked and accepted if they only act a certain way, Taystee’s invites us to ask: why be respectable when you can be a bit off?
As I was finishing my interview, I found myself distracted by a server carrying a massive burger. I asked Jawad and Nassereddine about it and they said it’s a burger served with a grilled cheese sandwich on top and a grilled cheese sandwich on bottom. The customer eating it was wearing a tank top and had perfectly sculpted biceps. He said his name was Abdullah, and he was a visiting student from Oman. If I were a better journalist, I would have asked for his last name, his age, and what he was studying, but I was bewildered at this seemingly incongruent image of an insanely in-shape young man eating an impossibly unhealthy burger. I did not want to disturb him as he was doing that thing so many Taystee’s customers do: eating their massive burgers with not just their hands but also part their wrists to hold up their food. Soon after, he wiped off his mouth, leaned back, and let a wide smile take over his face. “Two hours of cardio for this,” he said. “Worth it.”