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A Falafel Isn’t a Sandwich

May 11, 2011

It looks like I forgot Israeli Independence Day. This makes me think of two things right off the bat.

1)    Crap! I was probably supposed to dress Little Miss Fussy in blue and white. Oops.
2)    I had no idea I could take care of this politically charged topic with falafel.

There’s nothing that can be done about the first thing. I’ll leave living in the past to Walter Sobchak. But I’ve got lot of thoughts on falafel. And given that I’m not in the midst of any ongoing campaign, now is as good a time as any to share them.

First and foremost, we should be clear that a falafel isn’t a sandwich. You wouldn’t call a burrito a sandwich. Well, let’s hold the line on falafel too.

Falafel holds a place near and dear to my heart. It was a staple of my diet in high school.

The public high school I attended had open lunch and almost everyone in Miami drove a car to school. So when the lunch bell rang it was a mad dash to the parking lot, followed by a mad dash to McDonald’s or Burger King, followed by a massive wait in line, followed by a mad dash back to school.

This was madness, and I took no part in it.

Instead I went to this Middle Eastern deli. Usually around lunchtime I was the only person there. And here a warm woman about my mother’s age would lovingly fill and roll an extra large pita with falafel and all the trimmings. I’d leisurely drive it back to school and enjoy the hell out of it while the rest of my friends were eating their Jamaican beef patties or Pizza Hut Pan Pizza from the school cafeteria.

This falafel of my youth filled me with a love of the form, but they were by no means great falafel. After all, they were reheated in a microwave.

The best falafel is fried to order. While this is a vegetarian delight, it should not be confused with heath food. Ground chickpeas are healthful. Deep fried ground chickpeas are less so. But they are super-delicious. When done well, the outsides are crisp and the insides are moist and savory.

And like many of my favorite foods, they are a splendid contrast of flavors, textures and temperatures. Any falafel joint worth its humus will offer some kind of spicy pepper paste, which I believe is an absolute must. It plays off the cooling vegetables and sauce, while adding some much needed zing to a meal that would otherwise be really very heavy.

There’s a lot of bad falafel out there.

Perhaps the worst I’ve ever tried comes from a new outpost of a regional chain called Great Wraps. There they don’t fry the falafel to order. And at first I was dismayed to see that they only put two of the smallest chickpea patties into the wrap. Granted they were heated in something other than a microwave, and they were cut in quarters to extend their presence in the final product. However, the patties were so hard and so dried out, I found myself wishing there were even fewer falafel in my falafel.

To make matters worse, the only hot sauce they had was Buffalo sauce and the default wrapper was a wheat tortilla.

Granted, I later found that indeed there was a grilled pita option, but their menu board was confusing and this choice wasn’t obvious to me. However given the weakness of the falafel patty itself, there is no reason at all to give it a second chance.

But it does bring up the importance of the falafel delivery device. In my high school days it was a jumbo-sized pocket pita. But some of the better specimens I’ve enjoyed have come wrapped in a lavash style flatbread that later saw some time on the grill. I also have a soft spot for those thicker, pocket-less pita that one may find in gyro shops throughout the land.

However, no matter how you slice it, a tortilla is just plain wrong.

Pocket pita can be trouble too. I’m a big believer in a rolled falafel. This can be done with extra large pocket pita, as they can be partially filled and then rolled. But I’ve also seen local places that simply cut a regular pita in half and fill the pocket with falafel and the trimmings.

This is a dicey proposition for a couple of reasons. First, it’s very difficult to ensure a good even distribution of ingredients when stuffing the pita from a hole in the top. Second, it compromises the falafel’s structural integrity. Not only are you risking getting bites with nothing more than falafel patties, but you might get the entire contents of your falafel spilling onto your plate or lap as the pita bursts open on its seam.

I wish I could tell you a great place to go. I’ve heard that Phoenicians is good locally, but I cannot say for sure. I had a great glatt kosher place run by an old guy in a wheelchair and his son on the edge of the Tenderloin in San Francisco years and years ago, but it closed down.

Look for a fryer, and listen for the sounds of bubbling oil. Trust your eyes and ears, and they will lead you to the good stuff.

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One year ago today: Maple Syrup: A Sticky Situation
Two years ago today: James Bond is a Saboteur

13 Comments leave one →
  1. May 11, 2011 9:42 am

    I, too, love falafel, but don’t think Phoenicians is very good at all. They’re very dry and are the same texture throughout, rather than a nice, crisp exterior.

    I’ve yet to find at any restaurant locally that are as good as a friend of mine makes.

  2. May 11, 2011 9:55 am

    Used to be Hidden Cafe made the best falafel I’ve ever had, but we picked up one and some hummus/pita recently and the hummus was so overly salty that we threw everything away. Joe apparently sold the place….too bad. He made those falafels with a secret recipe and boy were they amazing.

  3. Bob W. permalink
    May 11, 2011 10:13 am

    Finally, confirmation that I am not alone in my falafel obsession (especially my issues with the “stuffed pocket” delivery system)!

    BFS used to have terrific falafel, but the quality has dipped drastically in recent years.

    I want desperately to like the falafel from a small place I walk by almost daily, as the owner is so cheerful and friendly and his mojaradera is the epitome of comfort food. But their falafel — even though it is fried to order — is simply horrible. I tried it on three separate occasions to make sure it wasn’t an off day — nope, just bad.

  4. May 11, 2011 10:17 am

    That is good to know about the Great Wraps. I think there is one in Crossgates? I was wondering about it, good to know you tried it!

  5. Phairhead permalink
    May 11, 2011 10:28 am

    Kabul Night in Schenectady reportedly has great falafel

  6. May 11, 2011 11:29 am

    When you’re serious about getting a good falafel sandwich in the area, hit me up. Right near my apartment, there’s an Armenian grocery store (Nora’s Grocery) run by a guy (Fred) who fries them freshly to order and makes a kick-ass wrap.

  7. Lisa permalink
    May 11, 2011 12:32 pm

    Park Falafel in Hudson has very good falafel and the pita is freshly baked.

  8. James permalink
    May 11, 2011 12:50 pm

    I agree with derryX that Nora’s is the place to go. Fred is a great guy and will probably end up feeding you samples of everything they have. My advice is to make sure you go on a Thursday so you get pita/ lavash that was just delivered fresh from Montreal and also pick up some stuffed grape leaves as well as some baba ghannouj or hummus that is made to order.

  9. May 11, 2011 2:21 pm

    Aw, man… when I saw the post title, I started thinking, “omg, I haven’t had falafel in YEARS!”, and I was really hoping we’d get a recommendation at the end (so I’d know where to plan on going this weekend). :)

  10. Grace permalink
    May 11, 2011 10:28 pm

    Members of our class just made falafel today for the Middle Eastern buffet at school! It was very tasty falafel they did.

    What I don’t get about falafel is why you’d wrap it in bread. It seems strange to wrap carb around a carb. I’d much rather eat it as finger food.

  11. Ellen Whitby permalink
    May 11, 2011 11:11 pm

    A great big thank you, Profusser. I appreciate your post on falafel. The greatest falafel I’ve ever had was in Tel Aviv, near the old bus station. The whole complex was busy with all kinds of stores – from housewares to shoes to car parts and books/magazines. It was a crazy place and you often had to wander around to find your bus stop. It was also pretty dirty and although it was an outdoor market, there was a definite smell. The falafel stands there were busy, so the falafel was always fresh. They’d hand you your fresh-from-the-bakery pita (with or without hummus, at your request) and falafel balls. The rest was all self-serve – Israeli salad, pickles, peppers, fried eggplant, french fries, different kinds of things marinated like onions, cabbage, beets, turnips, tehina, spicy sauces…at least 30 different choices. When they built the new bus station, many (if not most) of those little shops went out of business because all of a sudden, there weren’t any hungry soon-to-be-passengers waiting around.

    Ahhhh…those were the days.

    Nothing here even comes close. Thank you again for sharing.

  12. MiMi permalink
    May 12, 2011 12:21 pm

    Saati Deli in Latham (Newton Plaza) just started serving falafel. You can get it in a wrap or as a “dinner” with pita. I’m no expert, but I thought it was delicious.

  13. May 14, 2011 4:04 am

    My favorite falafel comes from L’As du Falafel in the Marais neighborhood of Paris. This is, of course, a hell of a commute, but recommended during an extended stay in Paris. (During a short stay in Paris, go eat a bunch of French things, for gosh sakes.)

    I’ve had good falafel at Phoenicians and I’ve had terrible falafel at Phoenicians. Unfortunately, the “terrible” trip was when my parents were in from out of town and I was introducing them to Middle Eastern food and needed a place with off-street parking. Locally (I don’t leave Albany and Colonie much) I think Mamoun’s is at least consistently good.

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