Southern Cooking with a Middle Eastern Touch

By:Bob Gillespie

Date:3/7/2016

South Carolina is known for restaurants serving down-home meals – fried chicken, potatoes, collard greens, beans and cornbread – and Yousef’s Kitchen in the town of Westminster is no exception. Well, other than the fact the owner and chef is a proud naturalized citizen from the Middle East.

Yousef Mefleh, 60, has spent more than half his life – since 1984 – at the stove of his cozy restaurant at 1109 E. Main St. (US 76), serving 150-200 meals a day to hungry townspeople (population 2,464 in 2013) and travelers. So he knows what they want.

“This area is working people, and they like potatoes and beans at every meal,” he says. “It’s a must: bread, beans, potatoes or they go nuts. They want something that sticks to your ribs.”

Yousef’s has a lunch menu with burgers and other sandwiches, but the real attraction is the daily buffet. A couple can load up on meat, three vegetables, bread and tea for $16 total, and the parking lot and booths stay packed. A December 2015 Travel Advisor review calls Yousef’s food “home cooking just like grandma. If you haven’t been yet, stop everything and go. You won’t be disappointed.”

And he's open almost all the time. Yousef’s Kitchen’s hours are 10 a.m.-9 p.m. (Sunday’s 10 a.m.-3 p.m.), 365 days a year, because, he says, “I feel like if we shut down, everyone asks, ‘What happened to Yousef?’”

Mefleh has a classic coming-to-America story. The oldest of nine children, Mefleh worked in Jordan after college and then in Saudi Arabia before arriving in Oconee Country in December 1979 to visit his brother, Nedal, then attending Clemson. “We’re like twins, I feel we have to be side-by-side,” Yousef says. Nedal, who retired after 23 years in the US Air Force, “helps me here when he feels like it,” he says, laughing.

Mefleh first worked in an uncle’s restaurant in nearby Walhalla, but returned to Westminster “because I love the town,” he says. “I felt this is what I need to do. When I’d go out to eat, I’d think, ‘I can do this better.’”

You won’t find Middle Eastern cuisine at Yousef’s, though he has experimented. “They try it, but (customers say) ‘it’s not something I’d eat every day.’ I’d need to be in a bigger area. Here, we depend on a small amount of people, so I figure out what they like and don’t like.”

A daily favorite is Yousef’s huge fried chicken legs, ordered from Pelzer. “I want you to feel like you got chicken with some meat on it,” he says. Each day, there’s a vegetable special; Tuesday’s cabbage casserole is a delight.

Along with good food, Yousef and his waitresses offer friendly greetings to customers. Everyone seems to know him, too. When Mefleh ran for city council (and won his current seat), he says he never advertised outside the restaurant.

Locals make up most of the clientele, but weekends see travelers from as far away as North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia. “Word of mouth is what got us where we are,” he says.

Visitors don’t have a problem finding Yousef’s. They just look for the American flag proudly flying outside. And the smiling faces inside. Call (864) 647-6947.

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