Monday, June 04, 2007

Looking for falafel in all the wrong places

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.


Anonymous said...

Growing up in the Middle East, I too am struggling to find the prefect falafel that would even resemble the real thing. I know the place you mentioned on Hilcroft (I ate there once, years ago when I was visiting Houston long before I permanently moved here). Let’s hope that your discovery is not a one-time anomaly because this happened to me before. Years ago, when I was living in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I had the best falafel sandwich in my many years of living in the US. It was at a place that I ate many times before and after but they never achieved the same quality. It was an early Saturday morning and the mix was fresh and the cook made it right there and then and wrapped it in freshly backed pita right from the oven (the place is also a bakery). It was the closest thing to the Real Thing.

As for the green in some falafel, I think it is due to the parsley not the fava beans. The fava bean falafel is darker but not greener. By the way, in Egypt the default falafel is the fava beans variety while in the eastern Mediterranean it is made only with chick peas.

I hope to try “the best falafel in Houston” next weekend.

Anonymous said...

I personally think the best falafel in town is at Mary'z on Richmond, between Chimney Rock and Fountainview. I have yet to eat anything there that wasn't craveable.

Anonymous said...

I am a vegetarian and love middle eastern food..which becomes Falafel inevitably! I should try out your new discovery..but i agree Mary'z has one of the best falafel and other food too among most restaurants Ive tried in Houston. Cafe Layal had a good falafel sandwitch too! Is there any blog entry on Hookah places??

Anonymous said...

Zabak's on Westheimer and Fountainview has a very delicious falafel...

Anonymous said...

I have been making falafel all my life i will like to invite you all for some good falafel maybe i will be the one to make perfect falafel

Anonymous said...

Having lived in the Middle East for a year, I'm a real falafel snob. My two favorite places are sure bets for good falafel, though both strike out in the decor department. The first is Al's Qwik Stop on Waugh north of Fairview in Montrose. The second is Jerusalem Halal Deli on Hillcroft south of Richmond. They are both ALMOST as good as the typical falafel around the Mediterranean, and in both places the cost is around $3. Try them and let us know what you think!

anonymouseater said...

I have tried Al's Quick stop. I thought they were pretty good, but not quite as good as these.

I have not tried Jerusalem Halal Deli. It's on my list now.

Falafel factory downtown is pretty good also, but perhaps not in the top tier.

muebles camobel said...

Thanks so much for this article, quite useful piece of writing.

Unknown said...

Best falafel I've had in Houston is at Dimassi's Mediterranean Buffet on Kirby