The falafel sandwich at Zabak's is a mouthful of extremes. There's hot and cold, soft and crunchy, spicy and soothingly bland, with salty and sour thrown in for good measure. To make the sandwich, a couple of spiced ground chickpea patties are fried extremely crispy, then placed inside toasted pita bread with lettuce, tomato, tahini sauce and a sprinkle of the sumac herb blend called za'atar. Then, in Zabak's distinctive Gulf Coast version of the falafel sandwich, a generous dash of Cajun Chef hot sauce is added. Finally, the counterman applies the Zabak touch — he pushes down on top of the sandwich to crush the crunchy falafel patties inside and spread them out evenly.
Zabak's falafel sandwich has been the best in the city for 30 years — which is a neat trick, since Zabak's Mediterranean Café at Westheimer and Fountainview has only been open since 2005. Allow me to explain.
In 1975, a Palestinian immigrant named George Zabak arrived in Houston. He and his wife Kay opened a sandwich shop on Hillcroft called Mama's Po'Boys, which became a favorite hangout for high school students and the local Middle Eastern community. The Zabaks were new to poor boys, but they knew a lot about falafels.
Zabak's Mediterranean Cafe
5901 Westheimer, 713-977-7676.
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
Their falafel sandwich became the city's favorite and has remained the standard by which others are judged to this day. George Zabak once delivered his famous sandwiches fresh every day to Whole Foods and health food stores all over town. After the death of his wife Kay, a grief-stricken George Zabak quietly closed Mama's Po'Boys.
In 2005 the seventysomething George Zaback and his daughter Sandra decided to resurrect the family business at the current Westheimer and Fountainview location. But before the doors opened, George passed away. Sandra, with the help of two of her brothers, opened the restaurant anyway. At the new location, Houston's first family of falafels has faithfully re-created their father's awesome sandwich.
A falafel is a vegan chickpea patty; it is usually fried but can also be grilled. The standard recipe calls for onion, garlic, cumin and pepper. Zabak's falafels are bright green and spicy hot. In a 1999 Houston Press review of Mama's Po'Boys, George Zabak revealed that his unique green falafel recipe contained parsley and green jalapeño peppers, as well as some spices that he kept secret.
I am guessing that George Zabak didn't set out to invent the Gulf Coast fusion falafel. More likely, over the course of several decades, Zabak's falafel evolved to suit the tastes of his Houston customers. This sort of falafel evolution has been going on for centuries.
Originally made in Egypt from ground fava beans, falafels are now made from either ground fava beans, ground chickpeas or a mixture of both. But the form is endlessly adaptable. In south Tel Aviv, one famous falafel stand sells green falafels colored with parsley, red falafels seasoned with red pepper and orange falafels made with sweet potato. You can get chicken-stuffed falafels in Detroit, Dungeness crab-stuffed falafels in San Francisco and vegetable-stuffed falafels in Chicago.
In the Arab world, fried falafel patties are often eaten as a mezza, or appetizer. At Zabak's, you can get falafel patties alone, on a plate with hummus and tabouli, or in a falafel sandwich. While Zabak's distinctive falafels are tasty in any presentation, it's the falafel sandwich that made them famous.
Zabak's Mediterranean Café is a spotless little walk-up service restaurant with marble floors and 17 tables. For a Mediterranean deli, it's disturbingly antiseptic. There is no display case full of savory salads and simmering lamb shanks, no tantalizing gyro machine; in fact, no food is visible at all. Instead, there are bottles of wine lined up along the front counter. I wonder how many bottles of wine they're selling? It seems like the second generation is trying to take the family poor boy shop upscale.
I sampled an excellent kafta kebab plate there one day at lunchtime. The ground beef was wonderfully seasoned with parsley and garlic, and it came with grilled onions and peppers over rice. I can't say I'm a fan of Zabak's chunky hummus or lackluster tabouli. I wasn't very impressed with the gyro salad I sampled either, which was monotonously long on the romaine. Both the gyro meat on the salad and the beef shawarma meat I tried on another plate were sliced too thin and tasted too dry. These kinds of meats are much more appealing at restaurants that have vertical roasters and a steady volume of customers so the meat is always freshly sliced and juicy.
The thing to eat at Zabak's is a falafel sandwich. Since I am not really a falafel expert, I took a short falafel tour of the city in order to check the oft-repeated claim that Zabak's are the best.
The worst I had was at Phoenicia Market on Westheimer, where I do my olive and pita bread shopping. The falafel patties weren't fried to order, they were already made and reheated. And the pita bread wasn't split. A whole round of pita was wrapped around a couple of falafel patties and the lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and tahini sauce like a big taco. You had to bite through a whole lot of bread to get to the reheated falafels. I liked the pickles, but otherwise the sandwich was dull.
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.
"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.
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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?