The felafel date

Felafel is one of the constants of my life in the Middle East.

Felafel 298.88 (photo credit: Brian Blum)
Felafel 298.88
(photo credit: Brian Blum)
One of the benefits of working from home is that you can take time off whenever you want, as long as you get your work done, of course. For me, my one consistent break has been a weekly trip to our local felafel stand with my friend Bob. To my exceedingly good fortune, we have what in my opinion is the best felafel in Israel a five-minute walk from our respective houses. Now, felafel ranking is highly subjective and most Israelis will swear by their neighborhood joint, but Felafel Oved on Derech Beit Lehem in Baka has a few things going for it that make the experience truly outstanding. There's always a line for ordering, which means that the felafel balls are usually fresh out of the oil. There's nothing as disappointing as old, cold or soggy felafel balls, and Felafel Oved delivers the hot and crispy variety 90 percent of the time. Felafel Oved's other big secret is a garlic sauce that is liberally applied along with humous, hot sauce and tehina. While a lot of felafel restaurants can make good balls, the garlic sauce elevates Felafel Oved's concoctions to another plane of existence. Yes, I know I'm laying it on thick, but wrapped in a laffa, it's just that good. Of course, the real reason Bob and I make our weekly pilgrimage to Felafel Oved is not really for the felafel but the conversation. Bob and I talk about everything under the sun - from shul gossip to why our kids hate school, from which are the best anti-depressants to whether God exists and if so, what She thinks we should do about Hamas and the Gaza Strip. In the middle of a day that is otherwise defined by long hours staring at a computer screen, without the company of annoying work colleagues to come knocking at the cubicle door to distract me at inappropriate times, our weekly felafel date cannot be underestimated. On occasion, Bob and I have experimented with other locations. When we heard that a branch of the Ra'anana yuppie felafel chain Felafel Bis had come to our neighborhood, we resolved to give them a chance. Bis's claim to fame is flavored felafel balls - there's green with a cilantro and parsley flavor; red which includes chili and hot sauce in a Mexican style; and yellow which has extra garlic and a slight oniony tang. The idea is good, but the execution disappoints. The felafel balls themselves are crispy on the outside but mere mush inside. You want your felafel to have a little fight in them, not melt in your mouth. Bis, which is located on Rehov Ben-Zakai in Katamon, is also too much of a fast food operation for my taste, just not as heimish as Felafel Oved, which is run by two scrawny ultra-Orthodox guys who've plastered the walls with photos of rabbis (mystical master Rav Kadouri is a favorite) and Kabbalistic faith healers, set up boxes for donation to various charities (there were 11 at my last count), who give away CDs with religious lectures, and often play Sephardic cantorial music while you sit at the two wobbly tables out front. Bis, on the other hand has clean tile walls done up in alternating blocks of red, white and black and no quasi-spiritual paraphernalia. It does have one thing going for it that Felafel Oved doesn't - fried garlic bread strips, dripping in oil and artery-hardening calories and free for the taking. You can pile them in a pita or eat them on the side. Afterward, you feel like crap but it almost makes up for the less than stellar quality of the felafel itself. Bob had long held that the best felafel in town was in the Bukharan Quarter at Shlomo Felafel, which is owned by his wife's relatives. One week we drove across town to give it a shot. The verdict: the balls were better but we found the overall gastronomic experience lacking. No garlic sauce, only a rather plain cabbage salad and not even any humous! Bob's family favorite was no more. Felafel is one of the constants of my life in the Middle East. I've eaten it all over the country and had quite presentable meals in Haifa, Ramat Hasharon, Beersheba and beyond. During a recent family trip to Cairo, we got to know the felafel there as well. The Egyptians make a flatter, more oblong ball and put only 2-3 of them in a very small pita (at 25 cents a sandwich, it's kind of like the White Castle of North Africa). Surprisingly they serve it with potato chips rather than French fries as is usually the case in Israel. We found them quite tasty, but upon our return to Israel, a visit to Felafel Oved confirmed that our local supplier still remained king. Do Bob and I ever consider branching out to something more exotic, say a burger or a plate of pasta? Nah... that would defeat the down and dirty experience of indulging in Israel's quintessential national fast food and feeling somehow patriotic while stuffing ourselves. And besides, that garlic sauce is just to die for. Felafel Oved is located just north of Rehov Yehuda on Derech Beit Lehem, between the dry cleaner and the Frankfurter old age home. There's no phone, no take-out and no reservations. Get in line like the rest of us and prepare to indulge.