This week, Monica and I visited UPD Mediterranean Cuisine (formerly University Pizza & Deli) at their new 430 Vine St. location near UTC's campus. As a student at UTC during the early 2000s, other than the on-campus food options, UPD was among the only places within reasonable walking distance to get a quick bite. And now, after a three-year hiatus, UPD has reopened just a few doors down from the old location in an apartment building called The Edge.
The restaurant has a different layout, but the owner, Akram Musa, is still offering the familiar combination of Mediterranean food, affordable pizzas and American-based items. And if you're lucky enough to be a UTC student, menu items can be delivered to your residence for free if you spend at least $10. What a deal!
Even after my college years, UPD remained one of my favorite places to get a bite. Musa's shawarma gyro, kebab plates and baba ghanoush were my first introduction to Mediterranean food when I was 18 years old. We didn't have food like this in my hometown, and I remember Musa used to give me extra fries to help make me "fluffy." He succeeded. Forty pounds and 16 years later, UPD is back ... and I couldn't be more excited.
UPD has been open a few weeks in the new location. The environment is much brighter than the former location, but the signature navy blue and gold colors of UTC can be found in the booths and on the menus. Groups of people were gathering for conversation; others were sitting alone with their earbuds, noses in books. More college students stopped by to pick up to-go orders.
Monica and I arrived at about 6:45 on a Tuesday night. The menu hasn't changed much—except that my beloved chicken Parmesan sub is gone—and many of the familiar items from years past are still available. Ordering takes place at the front counter, drinks are self-serve, and—it should be noted—UPD doesn't offer alcoholic beverages of any kind. We looked over the menu and placed our orders. Monica has no feelings of nostalgia about UPD—she went to UT–Knoxville—but she was excited that I was excited.
As if he hadn't been away for three years, Musa was walking around the restaurant greeting everybody and chatting. To add even more nostalgia, UTC men's tennis coach Carlos Garcia also walked in. My freshman roommate Thomas was a Slovakian tennis player, and Garcia was always a familiar face and name around the dorm room. I can't believe it's been 16 years since I started at UTC.
I ordered a spicy chicken sandwich and "fluffy" fries. Monica ordered a beef gyro wrap with a side of baba ghanoush. If you've never had the latter, baba ghanoush is a sort of hummus-style dip made with roasted eggplant and olive oil. It's served with pita bread for dipping. Adhering to Musa's Muslim faith, the meat on UPD's menu is "halal," or allowed for consumption under Islamic law and prepared using specific practices.
Even though the kitchen was busy, our food arrived quickly. We had to request extra tzatziki sauce (the gyro didn't come with extra), and they forgot to bring our pita bread for the baba ghanoush. But you know what? The food was fantastic. New restaurants often have a difficult time early on—which is one of the reasons I wait sometimes months before I visit—but UPD is still the same well-oiled machine it always was.
A part of me is sad my beloved chicken Parmesan is no longer on the menu, but I'm also relieved because I don't live far enough away to not gorge myself on a semiregular basis. I'll consider the omission from the menu a personal gift from Musa to my health and well-being. My spicy chicken sandwich was no substitute—although it was very good for $4.75—but at the end of the day, a first-timer's visit to UPD should include something from the Mediterranean portion of the menu.
Monica's gyro was stuffed full of meat and "the works"—yogurt, peppers, etc. At UPD, the wraps are stuffed and then pressed in a panini press. She shared a few bites with me, so I was kicking myself for not ordering something Mediterranean: a gyro plate, chicken shawarma, tabouli, hummus or the overlooked but incredibly delicious Jerusalem salad with feta and olive oil dressing. You can even get sides of falafel and lentil soup, alongside french fries, onion rings and tater tots.
UPD also offers a selection of vegetarian wraps and plates that should please any palate. I'm particularly intrigued by a dish called falafel avocado—regular falafel with hummus and avocado. It sounds simple, healthy and delicious.
Would we go back?
With such a diverse menu of varying items, UPD deserves more than one visit to try everything. I can't recall, for example, what the pizza is like. That would need a completely different visit altogether. What I will say is that I'm thrilled UPD is back. As someone who spent a lot of time there during college, I'm glad current UTC students can experience the same type of food that I fell in love with years ago. UPD is an institution for both UTC and the city of Chattanooga.
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