He Said / She Said: Patricia and John rate falafel from the pita to the tahini

From posh to the parking lot, there are a number of venues in which to enjoy a falafel sandwich, but the most important question is, of course, how does it taste?

John’s profile: Pita can make or break; don’t fear the deep-fryer; The O’Reilly Factor: How will this hold up in the shower?
Patricia’s profile: A falafel calls for abundant lettuce, tomato, onion; the pita needs to be supportive but not controlling; condiments should be on the spicy side.

Café Natasha’s Kabob International
3200 S. Grand Blvd., St. Louis | 314.771.3411
Sun. to Tue. – 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Thu. to Sat. – 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., closed Wed.

P: The most upscale establishment on our itinerary, Kabob International’s falafel sandwich was a match for the
frou-frou surroundings.

J: Still, there’s nothing pretentious about their menu. Well, except that they call falafel balls “croquettes.” And price
them commensurately.

P: These falafels almost justify the buck or so more than any of the others we sampled.

J: I can’t begrudge them what they spend on atmosphere, though I still think of falafel as push cart or diner food. But these are excellent, if not extraordinary.

P: Something in the essence of falafel resists the extraordinary. I crave them, but less for any gourmet appeal than for the satisfaction they offer. At best, the combination of chewy pita, fresh vegetables and crisp, well-seasoned patties topped with tahini dressing provides the solace of true comfort food while always seeming somehow lighter and cooler – in all senses – than its
American counterparts.

J: The mark of a truly fine falafel is that no two bites taste or feel quite the same, and these certainly live up to that. More emphasis here on onion and parsley than is the norm, and that is a very good
thing indeed.

P: The sharpness of the red onion and parsley was complemented by the lettuce and tomato, slightly sweet even though out of season. Well-balanced, these provided moisture as well as flavor to the sandwich.

J: Everything meshes perfectly, and if these fall short of transcendence, well, falafels just will. There’s nothing wrong with the restaurant, but it’s somehow just off. Is there something in the nature of falafel incompatible with table service, much less good table service like this? Although you can’t fault something for being better than it needs to be … still, there’s some disorientation.

P: I’ve never felt like there was somewhere nice enough in St. Louis that I could take my parents to try falafel, which is maybe part of the falafel’s very appeal. But Kabob International puts the lie to that notion.

J: Would you say that this falafel has forgotten its roots?

P: No.

Pita Plus
13005 Olive Blvd., Creve Coeur | 314.453.9558
Mon. to Fri. – 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sat. – 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

J: Here we are, back to basics. Table service? I don’t think this place has a crapper.

P: Even a table was hard to come by in this strip-mall storefront, leaving us eating outside on plastic patio furniture. But, as we’ve noted, falafel is not about ambience.

J: But here you can’t spell “hospitality” without “hostility.” Dude’s got an attitude.

P: Let it go. The falafel made up for the service with a snarl, if not for the drive.

J: Admittedly. This one was unique in our sampling as the five patties came nestled in the warm embrace of what we used to call a “pita pocket.”

P: Offered a choice of white or whole wheat pita, I went with the latter, which proved dry but not unpalatable. Fried to a serious crisp, the falafel balls steamed when bitten into, but weren’t so hot as to scald my mouth and ruin the rest of the meal. The lettuce, red onion, tomato combo provided predictable accompaniment, and the yogurt and hot sauces came in squeeze bottles to be applied at will. I’d forgotten about how integral hot sauce is to the down-scale falafel experience, and Pita Plus’ had a particular bite, which became a problem when the Styro-cup of water was drained.

J: It adds, somehow, to the authenticity of the experience to grab your own condiments from the cooler, and I’m digging seriously the very fried-ness of the thing. Plus, sides. Pita chips, pickle spear …

P: I found the pita chips superfluous. A good falafel is sufficient unto itself.

J: You don’t get it. The sides are what make it a meal, a meal eaten at the edge of a parking lot.

P: You’re still annoyed with the counter service, aren’t you?

J: Nice view of Dobb’s.

Al-Tarboush Deli
602 Westgate Ave., University City | 314.725.1944
Mon. to Sat. – 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sun. – noon to 6 p.m.

P: The Middle Eastern pop music that was blaring portended wondrous things. Al-Tarboush has had a mini-makeover, with the kitchen now largely enclosed and shelves of sundries – from ornate hookahs to dry goods and trays of baklava – lining the walls.

J: And most importantly, they’ve shed the annoying front door sensor that announced all who entered. This is falafel at its most elemental. It’s not just the paper plates, Styrofoam cups and self-serve water and hot sauce; it’s the sandwich itself. Four balls, well-fried, pita, produce, sauce. And the frying oil lent an unexpectedly nutty flavor to the balls themselves. There’s nothing subtle to Al-Tarboush’s falafel, but there’s nothing about the dish that demands subtlety.

P: The tahini sauce was well-flavored but thin, pooling at the bottom of each sandwich half, a drawback perhaps, but ensuring the sandwich ended on a high note. The Louisiana Hot Sauce lent a low-rent fusion feel to the dish, and I doused mine regularly to add both kick and moisture to each bite. I found the pita itself sub-par, though, my only complaint about this ur-falafel joint. And when you reduce falafel to its fundamentals the way Al-Tarboush does, each element is utterly integral to the whole.

J: Normally, I’m a stickler for pita freshness, but I find it hard to say a negative word about Al-Tarboush. This is falafel the way Americans know falafel. It seems like something that’s made to be discovered in your college years: Cheap, portable and just slightly exotic, falafel makes a statement. About something.

P: Plus, always in search of more oily goodness, we sneaked in fries from Big V’s Burger Joint down the street.

J: What happened to your “falafel stands alone” position?

P: Uh, fries happened.

J: What is wrong with us?

St. Louis Coffee Oasis
8 S. Euclid Ave., St. Louis | 314.361.6666
Mon. to Fri. – 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sat. and Sun. – 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.

P: This is our hope-it-makes-it start up, a delightful addition to both the coffee house and falafel scenes, insofar as there is a falafel scene. The Oasis strikes a balance between Kabob International’s shmanciness and Pita Plus’ “simplicity.”

J: As for the sandwich, let’s say three out of four. One, it was served open-faced on fresh and chewy flatbread.

P: In fact, when it was brought to the table, I thought this might commit the worst of falafel heresies and require a knife and fork, it seemed so unwieldy. But no, the bread folded evenly and, when placed back on the plate, neatly returned to its original shape.

J: Two, a mound of guiltily pleasurable iceberg lettuce. Three, a choice of tahini sauce or hummus.

P: But no hot sauce, which would be superfluous here anyway.

J: Four, the falafel itself, which is where a note of disappointment enters. Frankly, these are under-fried. They’re fresh, they’re made in-house, but they’re a bit mushy.

P: Though, as has become obvious, we love our fried goods overmuch.

J: Still, the overall effect is one of deliciousness. In fact, all things considered, this might well be my new favorite falafel.

P: Especially when coupled with the charm of the place. Although coffee is served in actual, nondisposable cups, water is still self-serve in Styrofoam.

J: See, it is real falafel. It is.