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A friend from Chicago recently complained that he couldn't find a decent falafel sandwich here, nothing like the ones they make in the Windy City. Surprised, and a little huffy on Houston's behalf, I rattled off a dozen places that serve falafel without even thinking outside the Loop. "No, you don't understand," he groused. "The perfect falafel sandwich is more than just the ingredients, it's how they're put together. I've been to all those other places, and they just don't do it right, even when I tell them how."
The key is the pita bread, he explained. It should be fresh and hot, of course, but, more important, it has to be halved vertically, then split horizontally so that the spicy chickpea patties can nestle cozily inside. "Most of those places just dump the patties on top of a whole pita that isn't split, so you can't open it," he said irritably. "Whaddaya gonna do, roll it up like a tortilla?" Further, the sandwich must be generously dressed with tahini sauce -- "not tahini paste!" -- and topped with crisp lettuce and sliced tomatoes.
So when my eyeglass-repair guy told me about Mama's Po-Boy on Hillcroft, I immediately reached for my cell phone. "That guy at Mama's, he makes the best falafel sandwich in town," promised the repairman, patiently peeling the duct tape from my frames. "I'm on my way," said my friend, slamming down the receiver.
Now I was nervous. The Chicagoan is a big, temperamental sort of guy not open to compromise on serious issues such as food, and Mama's Po-Boy sounded unpromisingly like a Southern chicken-fried sort of place and looked as cookie-cutter anonymous as the rest of its slightly down-at-the-heels strip shopping center. While I waited, I anxiously counted the tables (ten), the bentwood chairs (40) and the weird orange-and-brown plastic Tiffany lamps dangling from the ceiling (eight). The unsuspecting owner, George Zabak, and his wife, Kay, bustled about behind the counter, wrapping sandwiches and warmly greeting other lunch customers. "Ours is the best falafel in town," Zabak assured me, as the moment of truth approached. "I stand behind it 100 percent."
On first bite, I was in hot, salty, spicy heaven. The falafel patties were fried golden-brown and crunchy, then neatly tucked into the requisite halved and split pita bread still warm from the grill. Shreds of lettuce and sliced tomatoes slathered in satiny cream-colored tahini sauce filled the remainder of the pocket, festively sprinkled with reddish-brown sumac and a judicious shot or two of hot sauce. But my friend sat motionless, staring suspiciously into his sandwich basket.
"It's green inside," he growled ominously. I froze with my mouth full. Sure enough, the insides of Zabak's falafel patties are as vividly green as Kermit the Frog.
"That's right, they are green," says Zabak with pride. "That's my own special recipe that nobody else has. Of course I start with ground chickpeas, fresh onions and garlic, like everybody else. But then I add lots of fresh parsley and a little bit of green jalapeno pepper and some spices that I have to keep secret."
Turns out that Zabak's outstanding green falafel has fueled his business for 22 years, not only over the counter at his Hillcroft luncheonette, but also through local health food outlets such as Whole Foods and the Seekers stores on Bellaire and Blalock. "I make the sandwiches and deliver them fresh every day," says Zabak. "They've been buying our sandwiches for years, and our tabbouleh salad, too."
The small falafel sandwich ($2.89) was plenty for me; my friend, once he got over the color issue, handily polished off a large one ($3.89) bigger than my head. "Oh, yeah, these will definitely do," he admitted, to my huge relief. "I'm sold." Zabak also offers a nonsandwich falafel plate ($4.95): four undecorated patties accompanied by hummus and tabbouleh salad. I vastly prefer the sandwich and all its messy trimmings, so I requested the garlicky tabbouleh, dark green with plenty of parsley and freshened with a squeeze of lemon juice, as a side order ($1.39).
Carnivores can have as much fun at Mama's as vegetarians, we discovered. The zingy kifta burger ($2.95) is a red-meat-lover's version of the falafel sandwich: Zabak presses real ground round and various secret spices into a thin patty, grills it and slides it into a pita pocket with more tahini sauce and a generous dusting of sumac. It looks oddly flattened, like a hamburger that has been run under the rolling pin, but is quite tasty and highly portable for a lunch on the run.
We were equally pleased with the beef shawarma, also available as a sandwich ($3.39) or a combination plate ($5.45). Zabak marinates the beef overnight for full flavor, then shaves off thin curlicues of meat and grills it with onions. He tosses the spiced meat mixture with tahini sauce and sprinkles it with sumac for a traditional beef shawarma, or switches to mayonnaise for a Philly-style steak sandwich ($3.49), or chili powder, jalapenos and cheese for a Mexican version ($3.79).
And of course Mama's Po-Boy offers a poor boy sandwich. We recklessly ordered the large edition ($4.35) without realizing that, at over a foot long, it could double as a one-pound lethal weapon. Double layers of thickly sliced ham and mild salami alternate with folded blankets of provolone, generously heaped with lettuce and tomato and stuffed inside a hefty French roll. "Wow, that's a keeper," said the Chicagoan, impressed.