Ah, falafel. Done right, those tender orbs of mashed chickpeas or fava beans are fried to a state of crisp deliciousness, tucked in a pita and sauced and accessorized to a state of textural splendor. Done wrong, and they're leaden pucks.
So we set out to find three great falafel places, from Amba in Montclair and Kabab Burger in Lafayette to the Gotta Eatta Pitas that are popping up across the East Bay.
Gotta Eatta Pita
Address: 110 Hartz Ave., Danville and 35 Crescent Drive, Suite F, Pleasant Hill
Contact: 925-230-0900 and 925-526-4826; www.gottaeattapita.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
The falafel tab: $19.95 for one falafel pita, one shawarma bowl, a soda and baklava
If you like Chipotle (and dare to admit you're getting a little sick of it), you're going to love this new Mediterranean spot. The brainchild of Las Lomas High School and Castro Valley High School graduates, Gotta Eatta Pita retains the simple concept of the Mexican counter's fresh, sustainable ingredients, but with a Middle Eastern twist.
Start with a square bowl or warm pita ($6.95 each) and select your stuffings: organic mixed greens and a schmear of smooth, creamy homemade hummus coat your vessel and form a base for one of two proteins: chicken shawarma (not the unappetizing glob of slow-spinning meat, but rather juicy, flavorful slivers of free-range chicken) or four to five crisp falafel. The fried chickpea balls are two-biters, just the right size. And the texture is crunchy on the outside and moist on the inside. Want more? A side order (six pieces) is $1.99.
After several visits to both locations (a third is opening in Pleasanton), we professed equal amounts of love for the falafel and the chicken. But, we think the real star at Gotta Eatta Pita is the plethora of fresh authentic salads, including purple cabbage, Greek-style eggplant, cucumber and tomato, soft Israeli couscous, and zesty tabbouleh. Top those with tahini, hot sauce and pickles (the slippery, briny delights you only find at Middle Eastern markets) or Kalamata olives, feta and roasted red peppers (an extra 75 cents each) and you'll see why Gotta Eatta Pita is growing so fast. The first two locations sprouted within a year of each other; Pleasanton will open in August. Oh and if you imbibe during lunch, you'll be thrilled to know that the restaurant offers two East Bay brews for $4 a pint: Berkeley's 21st Amendment and Walnut Creek's Calicraft.
-- J. Yadegaran
Address: 3647 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette
Contact: 925-297-6343, www.kabab-burger.com
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; until 3:30 p.m. Sunday
The falafel tab: $23.26 for one falafel pita, one kabab burger (with fries) and two Turkish coffees
Falafel? At a kebab joint? You bet.
Lafayette's Kabab Burger, opened two years ago by husband-and-wife team Avi and Michaella Ben-Ari, offers a delicious tour of Mediterranean favorites with a tip of the cap to the American classic, the burger.
Michaella, a longtime chef trained in Tel Aviv, knows from falafel: crack open the crunchy exterior of the plum-sized spheres, and the herbaceous aroma inside drifts out in a cloud of steam. Get them in a soft, fluffy pita ($7.99), topped with Israeli salad (diced fresh cucumber and tomato), with hummus and tahini, or as an entree platter ($9.49). A side of five falafel balls is $4.99.
The signature Kabab Burger ($9.29) uses the seasoned mixture of beef and lamb also found on the Kofte shish kabab plate ($12.49). The seasoning mix is spot on: a hint of savory cumin, the suggestion of spice without heavy heat and an incredibly juicy patty come together for a burger that stands with the best all-beef creations at most American diners.
Other options included grilled meats and shish kabab plates ($11.99-18.99), gyros ($8.99/pita, $11.99 platter), chicken schnitzel ($12,49), and a variety of tasty side plates like fried eggplant ($7.49) and dolmas ($4.99).
Try the fresh-squeezed lemonade with a touch of mint, or the Turkish coffee, which is served in a small espresso-style cup. Enjoying a baklava or date-and-walnut pastry while gazing out the "windows" that open onto a painted sea is the perfect way to end your "trip" to the Mediterranean.
-- D. Jimenez
Address: 6464 Moraga Ave., Montclair Village, Oakland
Contact: 510-339-8000, www.ambafalafel.com
Hours: Open 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; until 3 p.m. Fridays
The falafel tab: $28.89 for a falafel pita, a shawarma-hummus bowl and two sodas
Between the cheery tomato-hued walls and appetizing aromas, this kosher neighborhood cafe in Oakland's Montclair neighborhood is well-nigh irresistible. Tuck into a falafel-stuffed pita or decadent bowl of hummus, and you'll be smitten, whether you're a vegetarian or a meat-lover. Four or five large, hot falafel nestle inside a warm, soft, whole wheat pita, cushioned by a cabbage slaw, pickles and diced cucumber salad, which makes it a textural delight, as well as a tasty one.
The falafel ($8.50) are fried to order, which on our visit, meant a significant lag time between the arrival of our turkey-hummus bowl and the pita sandwich. Tummies rumbling, we ended up sharing the hummus ($13 with toppings) -- silky and delicious, by the way, topped with shawarma -- and then sharing the generous falafel, which arrived piping hot, each bite revealing a moist, nicely spiced, green interior inside the crunchy crust. One bite and all was forgiven.
Going low-carb? Eschew the pita and get a few falafel (three for $2) along with a variety of Israeli, Moroccan and Mediterranean salads ($4) -- carrot, for example, or beet, couscous, baba ghanouj or tabouli. Or go all out with a mezze platter ($13), which includes three salads, two dolmas and a pair of falafel, too.
There's a dessert option, too -- baklava brought in from a bakery -- but we'd rather have more falafel.
-- J. Burrell