Sometimes projects start to bear fruit even before completion. So it is with Ali Hijazi’s El Limōn, a newMexican-Mediterranean fusion restaurant in the Plymouth Road Mall.
The Lebanese-born owner of the two Zamaan Cafes in town has had this idea in the works for years, and he was starting to feel the heat from his son Muhamad to open at last. It happened November 4.
“I felt like I’m gonna disappoint him big-time if I don’t open, so because of him I opened earlier than I wanted to,” says Hijazi. “We didn’t even do any advertising, nothing, because I didn’t want to have so much business when we were not 100 percent ready.”
Staffing is the biggest challenge, so the gregarious Hijazi has been relying on family (and friends he regards as family) to get this new concept off the ground—even as the Zamaan location in the Colonnade on Eisenhower prepares to reopen in early January after a fall hiatus. “I think I’m going crazy, I don’t know,” he laughs.
Muhamad and his brother Hadi, both graduate students, are working at El Limōn full-time, though their father hopes to free them up for more management responsibilities in 2023. An Iranian-born partner, Arash Sharifi, will manage the reopened Zamaan location with more of a Persian-Lebanese twist. And the north-side Zamaan Cafe remains a mile east of El Limōn at Plymouth Green.
At his newest venture, Hijazi is joined by longtime friends Lorenzo and Luis-Hernando Viera-Patron. The brothers had long careers at the Original Cottage Inn downtown, just around the corner from Hijazi and his brother Abe’s earlier restaurant, Shahrayar, which was on Maynard St. in the current Madras Masala spot.
“We built a very nice relationship. We used to feed their workers chicken shawarma; they would feed us pizza,” Hijazi recalls. The Mexican-born Viera-Patron brothers joined Hijazi in 2021 and helped run the Colonnade location because they “wanted something more relaxed” as they head toward retirement, according to Lorenzo, the longtime Cottage Inn manager.
Hijazi is glad they agreed to shift their near-term focus to El Limōn. “They’re amazing. They are so dedicated,” he enthuses. “You can see and feel their feelings and beautiful affection towards anything that we are successfully doing. I love these guys.”
The halal menu, which will expand as the kitchen staff develops, already includes many interesting possibilities: fattoush avocado salad, chicken shawarma burritos, and falafel tacos.
Hijazi eloquently explains that this fusion is not artificial, as Muslims had profound influence in Spain for some 800 years in the Middle Ages before Cortés led the conquest of the Aztec empire in Mexico. “There are almost 4,000 words in Spanish that are Arabic. That’s how much these two cultures and civilizations are connected.”
Along with the namesake citrus, shared flavor elements include cilantro, cumin, garlic, and jalapeño chiles. The Mexican grilled meat preparation known as al pastor traces directly to Lebanese shawarma, Hijazi notes. “There’s a lot of beautiful transition of culture and tradition and food, and I love it.”
A fresh renovation of a long-vacant storefront, El Limōn has a bright, tiled decor, with seating extending from the outdoor entrance along Nixon Rd. through to the indoor mall. Dine-in counter service, takeout, and Grubhub delivery are all options.
Hijazi’s plans to further juice ElLimōn abound: a gas fireplace, live “Arabic-Latino” music, a Mexican-Lebanese breakfast, and sponsorship of a pair of youth soccer teams.
“I’m buying a donkey next spring so I can come to work with it,” he jokes. “I only live two minutes away from here.” Just across Plymouth from U-M’s North Campus and its grad student housing, it’s his favorite part of town for the “different ethnicities and all kinds of languages here every day.” Lorenzo Viera-Patron adds that he’s already noticed “Indian customers love the vegetarian choices.”
With his home so close to the restaurant, Hijazi finds it easier to gracefully fuse work and life, as he seems to do with his working relationships and with bringing his homeland to his chosen milieu.
“A lot of people just walk to get wherever they want, and I like this feeling,” he says. “It reminds me of Beirut. You don’t need to go in the car just to get simple things you need
El Limōn, 2709 Plymouth Rd. (Plymouth Proper Mall). (734) 780–7088. Mon.–Fri. 10:30 a.m.–9 p.m., Sat. 11 a.m.–9 p.m. Closed Sun.