The phone rings at 4am. Diaa Altali answers, half-asleep, worried something is wrong. The voice on the other end of the line belongs to his friend and business partner, Elias Stanton, who can barely contain himself.

“Heart-shaped falafel,” he declares. “We’re gonna do a heart-shaped falafel.”

After sleepily chastising Stanton for waking him up at such an ungodly hour, he hangs up. For a time he closes his eyes, trying to catch a few more hours of rest before the day begins, but the idea continues to bounce around in his head. With a start, he springs from his bed and calls Stanton back.

“Oh, my God—let’s do it!”

This witching hour revelation came to Altali as he and Stanton were in the midst of opening their first restaurant, Achilles. It was to feature Mediterranean rice plates, wraps and pocket sandwiches, custom built for each customer on an assembly line.

In the runup to their grand opening, the two were concerned that their venture would share the fate of the restaurant they were replacing. The similarly themed Kabob House Halal had failed in the same location. They needed more than a little luck. They needed a hook.

Inspiration is a funny thing. Looking back, Stanton can’t say where the idea came from. “I was looking for something different,” he says. “And when I need to make a decision, I cannot sleep. But that’s how I usually find what I want.”

Stanton’s inspired vision has undoubtedly helped draw patrons. Their restaurant has a strong social media presence, due in no small part to its made-for-Instagram offerings.

But Achilles’ popularity cannot be attributed solely to the photogenic falafel. They’ve also succeeded in winning over some of the most fussy eaters on the planet: Yelpers. In less than a year, they’ve garnered more than 700 reviews—the bulk overwhelmingly positive—and currently boast a five-star rating on the foodie social network. That’s earned Achilles the No. 9 spot on Yelp’s list of the top-100 restaurants in America. They were the only South Bay restaurant to make the cut, and one of only two in the entire Bay Area to appear on the list at all.

While Achillies found success quickly, it wasn’t easy. As Altali observes, their location—in an unremarkable strip mall, in a residential area, next to a nail salon, laundromat and a liquor store—isn’t ideal for pulling in customers off the street.

But Stanton has spent over five years working in restaurants in the U.S., and some time investing in eateries in the Middle East. He knew that if the food was good, people would find them.

The first step was securing high-quality meats. They began by ensuring all of their protein offerings were certified Halal. Next, the partners sought to perfect their falafel, both aesthetically and culinarily.

The humble falafel is a staple in Middle Eastern cuisine. And though it may seem simple—an amalgam of ground chickpeas, herbs and spices—it is easy screw up. Done wrong, it is a soggy, bland lump. Done right, it is crispy and bursting with flavor.

Stanton spent a little more than a month tinkering with his recipe, adding a bit of cumin here, pulling back on the onion there. The result is sturdy, crisp exterior that’s bursting with fresh parsley, coriander and the earthy goodness of the chickpeas themselves.

Then came the custom-made, heart-shaped falafel. Each ball of falafel must be packed by hand, which is more challenging than it looks. Stanton says the skill takes some employees two or three weeks to master.

Some Yelp reviewers have attributed the crispy shell and moist interior of the falafel directly to the shape. There are more than a few convoluted theories about the extra surface area adding to the crunch. But Stanton has a different theory.

Each heart-shaped morsel is fried to order in a vat of oil dedicated solely to Achilles’ falafel. Stanton and Altali also change the oil in the fryer once every two days to keep the oil fresh and free of adulterants.

Near the end of my visit with Stanton and Altali, I ask how the two found out about making Yelp’s honor roll, and Altali begins to chuckle.

“Funny story,” he says with a smirk. “At first we thought it was a prank and I hung up, but then they called us back and we were able to confirm that it was the real thing.”

You never know when a phone call might change your life.

2521 Newhall St, Santa Clara