A falafel sandwich at Aladdin Restaurant. Photo by Emily Grosvenor

A Tale of Two Falafels

The best falafel sandwich in Iowa City used to be served at an Irish pub owned by an Italian-American from Ames.

It was also the only one in town.

Everything about it was wrong. The falafel, usually deep-fried balls of ground chickpeas, garlic and parsley, was a rectangular patty made from a powdery ingredient. Instead of the requisite pita bread, the sandwich was served on a hamburger bun and was topped not with the delightfully nutty and creamy sesame seed paste called tahini, but with sprouts and avocado.

Now, there is a falafel war afoot. With the sandwich being sold by a Palestinian at Coralville’s Aladdin Restaurant taking on the stuffed version of the delicacy served by two Israelis at Iowa City’s Oasis, it’s possible to get falafel worth fighting for.

In the Middle East, especially in Palestine, Jordan and Syria, street vendors selling falafel sandwiches are at least as common as McDonald’s in the United States. No one is sure of falafel’s exact origin, but it is clearly an Arab invention.

It’s also enormously popular with Israelis and has been called the Israel’s national dish. The popularity has led to charges of cultural appropriation.

But a love of falafel may be the only thing Israelis and Arabs can universally agree on.

By themselves, falafel balls border on the pedestrian. However, properly made falafel, with a crisp exterior that gives way to soft-but-not-doughy interior, is nothing to scoff at. Ordering falafel by itself is a cardinal sin. It’s like eating a BLT without tomato or lettuce and with Miracle Whip — what’s the point?

But when falafel is partnered with condiments, it becomes worthy of approbation.

Oasis has nearly perfected it. A falafel sandwich with everything fills a pita literally to bursting point. Just half is plenty for anyone. Two different cabbage salads add a satisfying crunch to each bite with the green cabbage offering occasion hints of caraway.

Hummus, essentially falafel that has been pureed smooth instead of fired; baba ghanoush, roasted eggplant seasoned simply with garlic and lemon; and tahini add a nutty creaminess.

And just when the garlic, hot sauce and mango curry are just starting to get to the point of overwhelming the palate, cool chunks of cucumber and tomato turn up.

At Aladdin, owner Hakim Rashid makes a version of the piquant spheres so loaded with parsley that the insides are nearly the color of split pea soup.

Rashid’s restaurant is what a Disneyesque Middle Eastern restaurant might look like. The space feels oddly affected. The blue paint has climbed the walls and is moving on to the ceiling. Arabic pop music plays from two tiny speakers sitting on a shelf by the register. Food is served on mismatched IHOP plates. A woman wearing a hijab works behind the counter.

Here, the pita-wrapped sandwich is a simple dish, the way Rashid thinks falafel should be served. Four balls of falafel, cucumber, tomato, hummus. Maybe a little hot sauce. While it is common to stuff fries into the pita in parts of the Middle East, Rashid rejects this.

“I’ve never had some one come in and say ‘add fries to my falafel,’” he said. “Add fries to the chicken. Add fries to the lamb. But not to the falafel.”

In contrast to Aladdin’s serenity is Oasis. It has the usual college-age crowd both behind the counter and sitting at the tables. It’s loud. By afternoon, the condiment bar is picked over.
And there is another small annoyance.

If you eat your sandwich there, you have to fill it yourself. So you can take the flattened spheres out and balance them in one hand while scooping fillings into the pita. Or you can mash everything thing on top of the falafel, obscuring its golden perfection.

Neither is a good idea.

But when you get a sandwich to go, the staff fills the pita with the assorted condiments and then falafel balls go in, balanced on top. Falafel is street food, meant to be eaten on the run.

And some how it just tastes better if you get it to go.