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The most interesting falafel I sampled was the one at Mint Café on Sage. The patty there is made with both chickpeas and fava beans. It was denser and moister than the usual chickpea patty, with a smooth chocolate-colored exterior. A thin layer of bread was carefully wrapped around the falafel and salad ingredients. The spices inside the patty weren't nearly as exciting as the Zabak falafel, though. But the chic modern cafe was a very pleasant place to hang out.

I also tried a falafel sandwich at Droubi's Bakery on Hillcroft. The Spanish-speaking lady behind the counter tried to use premade falafel patties, but I talked her into frying me some fresh. While I was waiting, I looked over the menu and noticed the poor boy sandwiches.

"Why do so many Houston Middle Eastern restaurants sell Louisiana poor boys?" I asked the bearded guy at the register. As luck would have it, I was addressing one of the few people in the city who could intelligently answer the question. He introduced himself as Droubi's founder, A.J. Droubi.

Zabak's are the standard by which Houston falafels are judged.
Troy Fields
Zabak's are the standard by which Houston falafels are judged.

Location Info

Map

Zabak's Mediterranean Cafe

5901 Westheimer
Houston, TX 77057

Category: Restaurant > Greek

Region: Galleria

Details

Hours:

11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.

Falafel (each): $.76

Falafel sandwich: $5.49

Falafel plate: $7

Kafta kebab plate: $8 Beef shawarma plate: $7.50

5901 Westheimer, 713-977-7676.

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"It was Mr. Antone who started it," Droubi explained. The elder Antone started out in a poor boy shop with his brother-in-law, he told me. Maybe the brother-in-law was from Louisiana, maybe he just liked the sandwiches. But when they split and Antone opened his own place, he continued to sell poor boy sandwiches.

What made it a poor boy — did it have mortadella on it? I wondered. "No, it was just ham, salami and provolone on French bread, Droubi said. "It was the chowchow that made it a poor boy." Chowchow, a traditional Southern relish made of cabbage, green tomatoes and hot peppers, was something new to Lebanese immigrants. Antone sold olives and Mediterranean groceries at his store and maybe that's what attracted curious shoppers, but it was the poor boy that really caught on.

And so Antone advised arriving Middle Easterners that Houston wasn't ready for Middle Eastern restaurants, but if you called your place a poor boy shop and put some chowchow on your sandwiches, you could also offer falafels or kebabs or anything else you wanted. Having heard the story, I thought it was kind of sad that Zabak's Mediterranean Café doesn't sell poor boys for old time's sake.

When my Droubi's falafel sandwich was finished, I took it out of the paper and noticed that it was wrapped in an unsplit pita instead of carefully assembled inside a split pita the way Zabak's was. "That's the Lebanese style," A.J. Droubi told me with a shrug when I asked him about it.

After eating falafels all over town, I can say that Zabak's are the best, if you like them spicy. I can also say that I have developed an affinity for falafel sandwiches. I went back and got another one at Zabak's the other day. And this time, on the advice of the counter guy, I added a lot more Cajun Chef hot sauce before I bit in. It was a spectacular sandwich for a hot summer day in Houston — filling and extremely spicy, but not as nap-inducing as a burger.

As I put the Cajun Chef back on the condiment rack, I started to fantasize about other variations. I wonder how a falafel sandwich would taste with some chowchow on it?

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