A year ago, I explained why I like falafel from New York street vendors so much more than any falafel I have found in Houston. Since then, I have been looking for the ideal falafel sandwich in Houston. After many misses, I may have found it.
Falafel is a fried ball of ground fava beans or chickpeas, popular throughout the Middle East, Mediterranean Europe, and North Africa.
Culturally, the falafel is very significant. Wikipedia claims that it "is now seen as a uniting, pan-Middle-Eastern dish." Indeed, in Tel Aviv, I found that falafel were made, sold, and eaten by as many Jews as Arabs. So can falafel bring unity and peace? Perhaps not: in Iraq, some street vendors have been threatened and killed by religious zealots for selling falafel, because "their products were not a feature of life during Mohammed's time." Regardless, in the 21st century, falafel are one of the world's best fast foods.
As you might expect, falafel has many variations, which often reflect regional differences. But I believe with religious certainty that there is a perfect falafel. It has a light, crispy exterior that barely holds the ball together. Inside, the chickpea mixture is coarsely ground, light and not too dense, moist, and provides an earthy, nutty flavor. The best falafel is a light and refreshing play on crisp and fluffy textures. It should be served in pita with a few veggies and a creamy sauce of tahini and/or yogurt.
I first found the perfect falafel in a food truck in Boston in 1991. The always-serious, usually grumpy proprietor told me that his food was "much cleaner" than the Chinese food truck down the street. He placed his falafel balls in flat piece of pita bread with a little limp lettuce, a few limp tomato slices, and a lot of tahini sauce. Despite the awful salad, the combination of crispy falafel and creamy tahini was heavenly.
Since then, I have found perfect falafel sold by street vendors in Manhattan. But I had never found the perfect falafel in Houston.
Perhaps the single worst falafel I have had in Houston were some hard, dried-out balls served by Droubi Brothers Mediterranean Grill in downtown Houston. They had a hard exterior, and the inside filling was much too dense and much too dry.
I also dislike the green-interior falafel at La Fendee and Aladdin, both of which are excellent little Middle Eastern restaurants on lower Westheimer. I assume the green color comes from the use of fava beans. The fava beans also may explain why these dense, heavy falafel lack delicacy and fill my stomach like large rocks. I recommend both restaurants, but not their falafel.
Similarly, I have found the chickpea falafel to be too dense and too dry at Yildizlar and Cafe Lili. Last weekend, I struck out with a falafel sandwiches at Phoenician Deli, on Westheimer near Kirkwood. The crust was right -- light and crispy. But the chickpea interior had been ground too finely and was not light and moist. Also, the sandwich suffered from a much too high ratio of salad-to-falafel. But I did like the spicy chili paste served on the side.
I found a nearly perfect falafel at Mint Cafe, a great Mediterranean cafe on Sage near the Galleria. The falafel balls had a light crust, and the interior was lighter and moister than most in Houston -- but not quite as moist as the Boston falafel truck and the New York street vendors.
Then, finally, yesterday morning I found it! Houston's perfect falafel. It had been right under my nose. I frequently go to Droubi's Bakery and Delicatessen on Hillcroft, south of Bellaire. I love their authentic Middle Eastern dishes, such as kibby in yogurt sauce and their braised lamb shank. But I have avoided their falafel because the ones at their sister restaurant -- Droubi Bros. downtown -- were so terribly wrong.
The falafel at Droubi's Bakery had it all -- crispy crust, light and moist interior, and an outstanding grainy, nutty flavor. The falafel sandwich, rolled in pita bread into a cylinder, had a little onion, tomato, and pickles, but 90 percent of the sandwich was dominated by the perfect falafel balls and a very generous amount of sauce, which was so creamy that it probably included at least some yogurt, in addition to tahini.
Droubi's falafel is as good as the best street falafel in Boston and New York. And as a complete sandwich, it may be even better. Even more incredible, it costs only $3.
Finally, after much searching, the best falafel in Houston has been found.
Let's hope no one gets hurt.