Food Fight: Battle Falafel

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Falafel is a Middle Eastern staple made with spiced chickpeas or fava beans which are ground into a paste, formed into balls, and then fried. The resulting patties are sometimes served alone, but most often rolled up in a flatbread and topped with a tangy tahini sauce... Sort of like a halal burrito. When fried properly, it isn't greasy at all; so in addition to its fantastic flavor, falafel is surprisingly healthy. And completing the trifecta, it's also nicely cheap.

From the outside, this culinary gem looks amazingly simple, yet break it open and you'll find a complex flavor tree within. The ground chickpeas are usually mixed with bits of onion, garlic, parsley, cumin and coriander, giving in a distinctly Middle Eastern flair. Couple the falafel's unique flavors with its strapping density, and you've got an item that ranks high on both the taste and the texture continuums. Also? It's just fun to say: falafel.

I first fell in love with falafel at the now defunct Mama's Po' Boys in southwest Houston. At the time, the food seemed strangely foreign to me, a high school student who was just beginning to explore the bounds of our culinary universe. But, instantly hooked, I reloaded at Mama's at every given opportunity. My affection turned to obsession when I tried the wrap at L'As du Fallafel in Paris -- gloriously crisp chunks of falafel, layered on softly charred pita bread and topped with what has to be Love Potion #9. Formative years in San Francisco saw me at the FiDi's Oasis Grill several times a week for a falafel wrap, easy on the spice. But back in Texas I struggled. Where do you find decent falafel in Houston?

Good news: The area near Hillcroft and Westheimer is filled with a rainbow of Middle Eastern joints -- from humble delis to jam-packed markets to fancier cafes -- offering large portions of hearty delicacies at distinctly affordable prices. They have names like Droubi's, Mary'z and Dimassi's, and they are filled with people of varying shades and language. This week's Food Fight pits one of these traditional Middle Eastern cafés against a modest corner store. Who will reign supreme?

Al's Quick Stop Located on Waugh Drive next door to Rudyards, Al's Quick Stop is exactly what it sounds like: a teensy convenience store filled with the most basic of items, designed for an in-and-out-in-three-minutes flash. But walk through the shelf area to the far side, and you'll find the deli counter, plus a small area filled with tables and chairs. Lit only by the nondescript fluorescent lights above, the area seems dingy, but sparks to life when you reach the counter. The mostly Middle Eastern menu features traditional favorites like gyros, tabouli and shawarma, yet there's a curious other side filled with Mexican dishes. For Battle purposes, I was able to suppress the urge to order a bowl of menudo or a plate of carne guisada alongside the falafel. My restraint is impressive sometimes.

Al's falafel sandwich is a wrap. Gorgeous, lightly charred flatbread filled with chunks of falafel, plus tomatoes, sweet pickles and beets, all wrapped into a loose bundle. The flatbread, served warm off the grill, is the star here -- light and starchy, with a beautiful, stretchy thinness. The falafel itself is flatter than most I've seen; the outside has that signature crunch, but the inside is on the dry side. Still, the flavor is there, well spiced with cumin and garlic. Dry falafel is a common occurrence, but it's often masked by the accompanying layer of tangy tahini sauce. The real problem at Al's, then, is that the tahini lacks flavor. Fresh tomatoes and pickles add a sweet acidity and light crunch, but the beets are oddly out of place. All things considered, the falafel at Al's Quick Stop will not find a spot in your nightly dreams -- but the flatbread might.

Zabak's Mediterranean Café The strip center on Westheimer that houses Zabak's is Houston's own version of Epcot: You've got French, Italian, Chinese and Mediterranean food, all tucked within a baseball toss of one another. Near the center corner is Zabak's, a small café filled with wooden tables, natural light, and what might be Houston's friendliest staff. Ambiance isn't the only improvement here. The falafel sandwich is shockingly different from the one at Al's: different bread, different spices, entirely different universe.

Zabak's uses pita bread for their falafel sandwich, which to me feels colder and drier than a flatbread off the grill. The pita is brittle and doesn't stand up to the whole mess of ingredients within. However, everything inside the Zabak's pita package is simply dynamite. The falafel is moist, lightly crunchy on the outside and bright, parsley-green on the inside. The spices within the joyous cylinders are dominated by the ground chili, which is also sprinkled over the sandwich toppings; this gives it a kick that let's you know it's there, without sounding the fire alarm. Fresh, sliced tomatoes and a wad of crispy iceberg lettuce give the sandwich a nice mix of textures. And the tahini sauce is exactly as it should be: tangy, drippy and slightly viscous. Zabak's falafel sandwich is a messy two-hander, one we'll go back for again and again.

The Winner: Zabak's takes this one in a one-round knock-out. I had high hopes for Al's Quick Stop -- partially because I really *wanted* to be able to find amazing falafel at a corner store that also serves regional Mexican food -- but alas, this simply wasn't the case. While Al's Quick Stop is okay in a pinch, Zabak's offering is -- part for part -- outstanding. The bread leaves room for improvement, but the innards are a mish-mash of flavors and textures that achieve an enviable culinary harmony.

Oddly enough, only after my visit did I learn that Zabak's Mediterranean Café is run by the children of George Zabak, the man who introduced me to falafel at Mama's Po' Boys so long ago. (Two claps for serendipity!)

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