The air hums with conversation as friends and families chat over chicken shawarma sandwiches and round plates of hummus.
To the left of the register, customers gaze into a glass display case, mulling over plastic containers of stuffed grape leaves, rice pudding and bottles of mango juice.
Open since 2009, Wally’s has become a restaurant unique for its ability to celebrate Palestinian culture through homemade food and good company.
The restaurant's owner, Wally Sakallah, who owns a number of other businesses in the Twin Cities including a new CBD coffee shop in Dinkytown, emigrated to Minnesota from Palestine in 1997 after finding it difficult to start his own business in Gaza.
Although he has eaten at many Middle Eastern restaurants in the Twin Cities, Wally Sakallah said none of their dishes tasted close to the food he remembered eating in his own country.
“You can find a lot of Palestinian people [in Minnesota], but you can hardly find anyone from Gaza,” he said. “So I decided to open a restaurant close to the taste to what I had experienced back home.”
The restaurant is run by two of his sisters, Amany Sakallah and Dana Saqallah, who work hard to make the menu as authentic as possible.
The family orders spices that are shipped to the U.S. from countries like Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, mash chickpeas by hand to make their homemade hummus and even buy specific tahini cheese that comes delivered in pallets from California — all so dishes will taste exactly as they would in Palestine.
Amany Sakallah said few restaurants are able to afford these imported ingredients, but she believes they are worth the cost.
“This is our own recipe [from] our own city [of] Gaza,” she said. “There is a specific place where [my siblings and I] grew up eating falafel every morning. I want my falafel … to taste exactly like the taste I have in my mouth from back home.”
Inside Wally's, evidence of the family's hard work is in every detail.
The restaurant’s handmade stained-glass windows welcome customers as they walk through the door, and paintings of Middle Eastern town squares and marketplaces adorn the walls.
Each tabletop is laminated with photographs of different cities in Palestine, complete with handwritten labels in Arabic.
Wally Sakallah said a lot of people make negative assumptions about Middle Easterners or Muslims, especially today.
He hopes his food will allow people to see him as a Palestinian rather than reduce him to his religion.
“I think food’s the easiest way to really share your culture because who doesn’t like to eat?” said Zak Khan, who enjoyed dinner at Wally’s on Wednesday. “It doesn’t take that much effort to sit down and consume a meal, and if you get to do it from another culture, you’re already learning more about them and getting to make that exchange.”
Wally’s customer base is unique in that the same people stop by the restaurant every week, some even multiple times a day.
Nader Almutairi is a computer science major at the University of St. Thomas. Originally from Saudi Arabia, he said he was worried he would miss eating Arabian food while studying abroad in Minnesota.
But after Almutairi's friends brought him to Wally’s a couple months ago, he said the food is even better than the food back home. Now he makes the trek to Wally’s three times a week, sometimes more.
Wally Sakallah said he understands why Middle Easterners frequent his restaurant. The food reminds them of where they’re from, as does the style of eating together as a large group.
He fears that families with children born and raised in the U.S. will become immersed in American culture and forget about their heritage.
For Wally Sakallah, his restaurant is a place where he can share his identity and find pride in his roots.
“The money is not the motive for me to open a restaurant as much as [it is] to show I exist. To show my name exists. A Palestinian guy and Palestinian food — why not?”