The Falafel Date

by Brian on July 20, 2007

in Just For Fun,Only in Israel

One of the benefits of working from home is that you can take time off whenever you want, as long as you get your work done, of course. For me, my one consistent break has been a weekly trip to our local falafel stand with my friend Bob. To my exceedingly good fortune, we have what in my opinion is the best falafel in Israel a short 5-minute walk from our respective houses.

Now, falafel is a highly subjective taste and most Israelis will swear by their neighborhood joint. But Falafel Oved on Jerusalem’s Derech Bethlehem in Baka has a few things going for it that make the experience truly outstanding. There’s always a line for ordering, which means that the falafel balls are usually fresh out of the oil. There’s nothing as disappointing as old, cold or soggy falafel balls and Falafel Oved delivers the hot and crispy variety 90% of the time.

Falafel Oved’s other big secret is a garlic sauce that is liberally applied along with humous, harif (hot sauce) and tehina. While a lot of falafel restaurants can make good balls, the garlic sauce elevates Falafel Oved’s concoctions to another plane of existence. Yes, I know I’m laying it on thick, but wrapped up in a soft Arabic-style laffa, it’s just that good.

Of course, the real reason Bob and I make our weekly pilgrimage to Falafel Oved is not really for the falafel but the conversation. Bob and I will talk about everything under the sun – from shul gossip to why our kids hate school, which are the best anti-depression pills to whether God exists and if so, what She thinks we should do about Hamas and the Gaza Strip. In the middle of a day that is otherwise defined by long hours staring at a computer screen, alone without the company of annoying work colleagues to come knocking at the cubicle door to distract me at inappropriate times, our weekly falafel date cannot be underestimated.

On occasion, Bob and I have experimented with other locations. When we heard that a branch of the Ra’anana yuppie falafel chain Falafel Bis had come to our neighborhood, we resolved to give them a chance. Bis’s claim to fame is flavored falafel balls – there’s green with a cilantro, petrazilla and parsley flavor; red which includes chili and hot sauce in a Mexican style; and yellow which symbolizes extra garlic with a slight onion-y tang. The idea is good, but the execution disappoints. The falafel balls themselves are crispy on the outside but mere mush inside. You want your falafel to have a little fight in them, not melt in your mouth.

Bis, which is located on Ben Zakai Street in the Katamon neighborhood, is also too much of a fast food operation for my taste, just not as heimish as Falafel Oved which is run by two scrawny ultra-Orthodox guys who’ve plastered the walls with photos of Rabbis (mystical master Rav Kadouri is a favorite) and kabbalistic faith healers, set up boxes for donation to various charities (there were 11 at my last count), give away CDs with religious lectures, and often play Sephardic cantorial music while you sit in the two wobbly tables on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant.

Bis, on the other hand has clean tile walls done up in alternating blocks of red, white and black and no quasi-spiritual paraphernalia. It does have one thing going for it that Falafel Oved doesn’t – fried garlic bread strips, dripping in oil and artery-hardening calories and free for the taking. You can pile them in a pita or eat them on the side. Afterwards, you feel like crap but it almost makes up for the less than stellar quality of the falafel itself.

Bob had long held that the best falafel in town was at Shlomo Falafel in Jerusalem’s Bucharian Quarter. It’s owned by relatives of his wife. One week we drove across town to give it a shot. The verdict: the balls were better but we found the overall gastronomic experience lacking. No garlic sauce, only a rather plain cabbage salad and not even any humous! Bob’s family favorite was no more.

Falafel is one of the constants of my life in the Middle East. I’ve eaten all over the country and had quite presentable meals in Haifa, Ramat HaSharon, Beersheva and beyond. During our family’s recent trip to Egypt, we got to know the falafel there as well. The Egyptians make a flatter, more oblong ball and put only 2-3 of them in a very small pita (at 25 cents a sandwich, it’s kind of like the White Castle of North Africa). Surprisingly they serve it with potato chips rather than French fries as is usually the case in Israel. We found them quite tasty, but upon our return to Israel, a visit to Falafel Oved confirmed that our local supplier still remained king.

Do Bob and I ever consider branching out to something more exotic, say a burger or a plate of pasta? Nah…that would defeat the down and dirty experience of indulging in Israel’s quintessential national fast food and feeling somehow patriotic while stuffing our guts. And besides, that garlic sauce is just to die for.

Falafel Oved is located just north of Yehuda Street on Derech Bethlehem, between the dry cleaner and the Frankfurter old age home. There’s no phone, no take out and no reservations. Get in line like the rest of us suckers and prepare to indulge. Falafel in a pita runs 11 shekels, in a laffa it’s NIS 15. Bring your own napkins!

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