I casually mentioned to a good friend (in fact, the first friend I made when I moved to Seattle) that I'd never tried falafel, and he was shocked. "You lived in New York City and never tried falafel?" he asked. "And you call yourself a food writer?!" Frankly, the idea was never that appealing. When I'm broke, or craving street food, my instincts head toward $1.50 egg sandwiches from greasy spoons, or Polish sausages and meats-on-a-stick from vendors. Fried puréed legumes and bulgur wheat with pita bread was for vegetarians; it was hippie food, yoga food. What did it have to do with me?
But then somehow falafel became a minor obsession. I started overhearing falafel anecdotes, learning about its subtleties (chickpeas or fava beans? croquettes or ball-shaped? tahini or yogurt? turmeric or sumac? cumin or coriander--or both?) and regional differences (lettuce in Seattle, parsley in Detroit). I read with great interest the New York Times' piece (July 10, Dining Out, "A History of the Middle East in the Humble Chickpea") about how Israelis and Palestinians argue vehemently over where falafel originated--as if they didn't have enough to argue about. Israelis say that ancient Jews ate falafel in Egypt and Syria, and tourist brochures proclaim falafel to be "Israel's national snack"; Palestinians feel as if an important cultural recipe has been stolen and bastardized, and insist on falafel's romantic Arab roots.
I decided to survey Seattle's falafel landscape, and it seemed appropriate that First Friend, the falafel fanatic, would accompany and guide me on my quest to understand falafel.
Seattle is not exactly known for its street food. Finding falafel sold from a steaming cart, smelling the garlic and hearing the sizzle that can only come from a deep fryer, is pretty much out of the question. But I encourage you to do what First Friend and I did all summer long: Get it wrapped up to go, and eat standing up. Being messy, walking quickly, and talking the entire time makes it taste even better.
Aladdin Gyrocery, 4139 University Way NE (U-District), 632-5253.
This is where I tried my first-ever bite of falafel. I ordered my own sandwich and ate the entire thing by myself.
What a relief. It was inoffensive--mild and benign, and a lot less salty than I'd expected. It's a pleasant surprise to discover that the flavor and complexity of falafel doesn't rely on salt content and strong meat essences, like so many other street foods. A low-sodium network of spices and parsley demand taste-bud appreciation in a decidedly more subtle fashion than the average hot dog smothered in relish; this lends falafel the kind of sophistication rarely found in deep-fried fritters.
At about $4 a pop, Aladdin Gyrocery's falafel sandwich is perfect student food: cheap, fast, filling, portable. This place keeps its falafel sandwiches simple, with nice, thick pita ("the good kind," according to First Friend; pita thickness is very important to him), shredded iceberg lettuce, sliced onions, and tomato. "It's solid," said First Friend, "but sort of boring, and not very creative." But we both appreciated Aladdin's basic, no-frills approach--perfect for a falafel rookie, and for a dependable quickie meal--and we loved Aladdin Gyrocery's back room (with bright rugs, a comfy couch, cushions) and display shelf stocked with Middle Eastern grocery items for sale.
(Also try Aladdin Falafel Corner, 4541 University Way NE, 548-9539.)
1319 NE 43rd St (U-District), 632-7708. (Not to be confused with Cedar's Restaurant on Brooklyn, where, according
to First Friend, the falafel is of inferior quality.)
A falafel platter can be an excellent option for those of us who want a bit more control over what each bite of falafel is accompanied with. A falafel sandwich can be annoying, since sometimes you'll get a huge mouthful of lettuce only, or too much onion. (First Friend totally disagrees. He believes the appeal of falafel is its mobility.) Cedar's falafel plate ($7.25, add $2 for sautéed onions) is quite good--the falafel discs are a nice size and not too greasy, and a flavorful blend of garbanzo and fava beans are used, with generous sprinklings of purple sumac and cumin. Crisp cucumbers are included in the salad along with the usual suspects, and cucumbers, I've come to realize, are essential; with their clean taste and cooling crunch, they're the perfect counterpoint to seasoned and fried falafel patties doused in sauce.
First Friend was fairly impressed with Cedar's falafel sandwich ($3.75), but took note of the thin pocket pita (the kind you get at the supermarket) with disappointment. FF is firmly anti-pocket pita: He feels it is neither strong nor fluffy enough to be satisfying.
Aladdin on the Square, 105 First Ave S (Pioneer Square), 621-8585.
We almost forgot about our falafel-tasting mission here, due to the flirty young waitress who referred to First Friend as "honey" so frequently it made him blush. (First Friend is usually oblivious to the advances of flirty girls.)
Right, the falafel. It was... okay. A bit dry for my liking. We ordered the falafel appetizer ($3.95, made here with chickpeas and puréed veggies), which was attractive--a pretty golden hue--but unremarkable, even with tahini sauce. The falafel sandwich ($4.50/$5.50), served with tasty fries, didn't earn raves from FF either. We were happiest with our bowls of lentil soup ($3.50), smoothly pulpy and spiced just right. (And P.S., by the way: It was very difficult to stick to vegetarian fare. I plan on returning to sample the Mediterranean lamb chops, grilled whole sea bass, and kafta baladie.)
Karam's, 340 15th Ave E (Capitol Hill), 324-2370.
First Friend was all excited about this place on account of its authentic Lebanese menu, and he thought he was going to score some of that mythical Lebanese falafel he remembers so fondly but vaguely (not from his Lebanese childhood, but from traveling dirt-poor in Paris). But, as at Aladdin on the Square, Karam's falafel dinner ($9.95) is definitely not the superstar of its culinary repertoire.
The thing about Karam's falafel (and this may be what some folks prefer) is that it is more about texture than it is about filling. The fritters are smaller than you usually find, and a great deal crunchier, with a thick armor of breading that departs from standard falafel "skin." FF and I both felt a bit anticlimactic about our falafel dinners while our companions enjoyed succulent grilled fish.
Zaina Food, Drink & Friends, 108 Cherry St (Pioneer Square), 624-5687.
1619 Third Ave (downtown, on the street level of the Bon Marché parking garage), 770-0813.
According to FF and other surveyed falafel aficionados, Zaina is the best falafel in Seattle. Hands down. I almost agree, but my heart belongs to Mediterranean Mix. (More on that later.) First Friend goes to Zaina all the time--he's had a birthday party there, he chats up the owner, he goes alone when he needs emotional/gastronomical sustenance, and I've seen him literally breakdance with joy as soon as he enters.
The falafel is amazing. Hummus and tzatziki are generously smeared on a soft mattress of "good" pita, and falafel fritters--superior quality, traditional seasonings, moist filling--are tossed with chunks of super-fresh parsley (and is that mint?), bright Roma tomatoes, cubed cucumbers, green leaf lettuce, and stewed whole chickpeas, all squirted with a gorgeous red harissa-like sauce, fiery and vibrant. This is falafel with PASSION ($4.99 sandwich/$9.59 platter)--made with more love and enthusiasm than at most other places. A slightly different version comes with caramelized onions, roasted vegetables, and large hunks of eggplant, all commingling with garlicky hummus. Eating here makes me understand why vegetarians like FF rely so heavily on Middle Eastern food. I don't even care about meat when scarfing falafel at Zaina.
Mediterranean Kitchen Express, 1417 Broadway (Capitol Hill), 860-3989.
A lot of folks--First Friend included--aren't crazy about the falafel here, and complain about its lack of spice and depth. I like it, though. The falafel (sandwich $4.35, plate $7.50) is just moist enough, garlicky, with bits of verdant parsley studded throughout the mashed garbanzo beans. What's more, they use the right kind of pita, and include large wedges of cucumbers, which provide so much more crisp, clean support than your standard diced cucumber bits found in other falafel sandwiches.
(Also try Mediterranean Kitchen, 366 Roy St, Queen Anne, 285-6713.)
Kosher Delight, 1509 First Ave (Pike Place Market), 682-8140.
Finally, some Israeli falafel, some Jewish love. This teeny storefront kicks out the BEST MOTHERFUCKING MATZO BALL SOUP in town, so I had high hopes for the falafel (sandwich, $3.95). Despite its pocket pita--"bad" pita--I liked my sandwich immensely: a coarser-than-usual purée of chickpeas and parsley, chopped romaine lettuce, velvety hummus, and diced cucumbers. (But no onions and tomatoes, which didn't really bother me. But who the hell am I kidding? I love the old guy behind the counter so much that he could serve me breadsticks and I'd think he was a frickin' genius.) Plus, Kosher Delight's falafel sandwich is by far the neatest we sampled--wrapped tight, perfect for walking and eating. FF and I gently disagreed:
"It's mediocre," declared FF.
"What. It's minimalist," I said defensively.
"But I do like that the pita is hot and toasted."
"Maybe it's just the way they do it in Israel!"
Sabra, 1916 Pike Place Market #14 (near Emmett Watson's Oyster Bar and the Soap Box), 441-4544.
Eh. This cozy spot makes a nice basic falafel sandwich ($4.50)--iceberg, tomato, a dollop of hummus, supermarket pocket pita--but the thin yogurt sauce makes it tricky to eat as street food. FF and I created a mountain of napkins after being done with our sandwiches. While the falafel itself was decent, FF and I quickly became more enamored with Sabra's fried squash patties ($2.29 each), flecked with warm feta. Once I got to the squash patties, I didn't think about meat, not even once.
Mediterranean Mix, 205 First Ave S (Pioneer Square), 341-9265.
This place is my favorite--even better, I think, than Zaina. With its exposed brick, old tile and wood floors, and fluorescent lighting, this urban space (a favorite of late-night barflies, frat boys, clubbers, and daytime pedestrians) pays tribute to Foods You Can Eat Standing Up: NY-style thin-crust pizza slices, gyros, Philly cheese steaks, broiled burgers, fish & chips, and, of course, falafel ($4 sandwich/$4.95 platter).
The Moroccan guys at Med Mix know what they're doing. Moist, sweet falafel fritters, a pretty green color thanks to parsley, are shoved into grilled "good" pita with whole chickpeas, sliced onions, a thick tzatziki sauce, and a huge spoonful of tomato-heavy tabbouleh salad.
On a warm, muggy August evening, we sampled Med Mix's falafel after already having a full meal at Zaina; FF practically inhaled his second falafel sandwich, skipping toward the waterfront as he left a trail of sauce on the sidewalk.
"Min," he said, somehow managing to chew and grin and rub his bloated stomach at the same time, "I think I'm going to throw up. But I am so happy right now."