Thursday, March 5, 2009

Best of Philly: Falafel

Crispy on the outside, moist chickpeas and secret spice blend on the inside, and tastebud-exciting all over, falafel is a food most of us are familiar with--falafel balls freshly fried, creamy hummus, a variety of fresh and pickled salads, tehineh (sesame paste), and pita. Seems simple, right? Like any simple food, however, it is both easy to make and easy to mess up. But when you find a good falafel it is one of the most exciting and satisfying meals there is.

I set out on a mission to find the best tasting, most authentic, take-out falafel sandwich purveyor in Philadelphia. After much walking, tasting, and deliberating, I've narrowed it down to the top three.

Mama's Vegetarian
18 S. 20th St. (bet. Market and Chestnut); $6; Cash Only; Kosher
Mama's is usually so busy you'll have to wait a few minutes for fresh-out-of-the-fryer falafel, but the wait is worth it. The Large Mama's is a five-falafel gem with optional hot sauce, traditional salad toppings (tomatoes, onions, pickled cabbage), a generous dollop of hummus, and a finishing squirt of tehineh. You choose white or wheat pita, and the Israeli experts will assemble your meal in a way that smacks of military efficiency. The sandwich gives hot, spicy, crispy, and fresh in every bite. I often go out of my way to get falafel from Mama's, making it a necessary side trip when I go shopping or studying downtown.

128 S. 12th St. (bet. Walnut and Chestnut); $5.75; Glatt Kosher
Like Mama's, Maccabeam is Israeli, and at both you'll hear Hebrew from the staff and, oftentimes, the clientele. And like any good Middle Eastern joint they are not shy on portions. The sandwich was stuffed to the brim, but the taste of the falafel was not lost in the hodgepodge of other flavors. The server smashes the falafel in the pita with his tongs, spreading it throughout the sandwich and showing he knows what he's doing. This sandwich had an excellent combination of crispy and moist, salty and spicy, freshness and tang - with the pickled cabbage a particular standout.

603 S. 4th St. (at South); $5.30
The unassuming front opens into a genuine Middle Eastern take-out counter, complete with falafel fryer, shewarma spit (you've seen it at Greek Lady; it's what they would call gyro), and Arabic. Doubling as a sit-down Lebanese restaurant, you can also get your goodies to go, including a falafel sandwich jam-packed with mouth-watering goodness. Like Maccabeam they smash their hot, fresh falafels - as if the Arabic accents weren't enough proof of these guys' authenticity. Lots of tehineh and a fully-stuffed pita combine for a sandwich that is as delicious as it is messy. I couldn't get enough and finished it all the way down to the last drop of tehineh on the foil wrapper, all the while dripping cucumbers, tomatoes, and tehineh onto the unsuspecting South Street sidewalk.

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