In the world of food, perhaps no dish has origins so ancient, ambiguous, or hotly contested as does falafel.
Called ta’amia in Egypt, meaning “nourishment” or “little tasty thing,” falafel is believed to have originated with Christian Copts in the 4th century who prepared the fritters during Lent using fava beans, one of the world’s oldest domesticated crops.
The little tasty things eventually traveled to the Levant, where fava beans were replaced with chickpeas. Today, the Oxford Companion to Food describes falafel as “the Israeli hot dog,” and it has been claimed as the national dish of many Middle Eastern countries. However, these claims about a relatively small food item can cause contention.
In A History of the Mideast in the Humble Chickpea, reporter Jodi Kantor writes, “…the world’s rawest conflicts can include disagreements over common foodstuffs. Irish Catholics and Protestants have lightly bickered over whiskey. Turks and Greeks have feuded over coffee. And Jews and Arabs argue about falafel in a way that reflects the wider conflict, touching on debates over territory and history.”
Falafel has even caused rifts among family members, like the Sahyoun brothers in Beirut who split their father’s storefront into two separate competing businesses with the same name. Falafel Sahyoun is one of Lebanon’s oldest falafel restaurants, founded by their father Mustapha Sahyoun in 1933. The New York Times reports the brothers reopened it after Lebanon’s civil war, and ran it together for 14 years.
Falafel also causes feelings of conflict within me. If not served properly, it can be dry, mealy and dull, like a bad hush puppy. However, when served at its best — directly from the fryer — falafel can be addictive when it has a crunchy, dark brown crust and a fluffy interior seasoned with plenty of cumin and garlic. The best versions are green inside with parsley, scallions, leeks or cilantro. Add nutty tahini, tomatoes and pickles, and falafel can be a cheap source of protein and an immensely satisfying treat.
These four North Texas restaurants are serving falafel at its best.
Opened in a Preston Hollow storefront in November 2016, Ephesus is a superb BYOB restaurant with easy-to-order takeout owned by Turkish chef Ali Kayan. For the outstanding falafel, he adds cilantro to the traditional parsley filling “because we are in Dallas and a lot of people like it,” he says. Unlike other falafel in town, here it is made without flour and is thus gluten-free.
Kayan says that even though his restaurant has received good reviews on Google, Facebook and Yelp, business in the last year has still dropped by 50 percent. He is optimistic about an imminent uptick in business.
10455 N. Central Expressway, Suite 118, Dallas. ephesusdallas.com.
Formerly Pera Tapas and Wine, owner Habip Kargin reopened his respected Turkish restaurant as Selda Mediterranean Grill in 2019 with an updated interior, patio and menu. In the past six months, he’s also added a new partner and head chef, Sirzat Demir, who comes with sous chef experience from several local hotels and is also coincidentally from Kargin’s hometown of Mersin.
In his first role as head chef, Demir is putting his own stamp on the menu. He mixes celery, onion and parsley into his falafel batter after the chickpeas have soaked for two days, and serves the croquettes with jalapeño avocado aioli. He says the falafel is good because he spends long hours making everything from scratch.
Demir reports sales on the downturn due to the pandemic and the name change, but the food at Selda is as impressive as it ever was at Pera, if not even more so.
6006 Beltline Road, Dallas. seldadallas.com.
Made with a mixture of fava beans and chickpeas and scooped into small discs, the falafel at Aladdin Mediterranean Cafe in Fort Worth is the best I’ve ever had. I would happily drive the 30 miles again for the habit-forming morsels prepared with the owner’s family recipe from Jordan.
Even though it’s a storefront, Aladdin has a pleasant covered patio, where you will want to eat the falafel immediately.
General manager Elias Shiber tells us they’ve had “good moments and bad moments” in the last year, but they are “still doing OK.” And it’s not just me raving about the falafel.
9500 Ray White Road, #163, Fort Worth. aladdinmedicafe.site.
With experience running a restaurant group and a Cozymel’s, a former Brinker concept, Russell Birk’s first concept fully his own is the Casa Linda favorite, Maya’s Modern Mediterranean — a fast-casual concept named after Birk’s daughter. The Big O’s Hummus is named for his son, Oren. In addition to his touted hummus, Birk, who is a marathoner and triathlete, is also serving what is likely the only falafel in town made with an industrial air fryer. He says he’s achieved crispy status “without the toxicity” and likens his Israeli recipe to “a corn dog in some way.”
Proteins at Maya’s can be ordered in a pita, on a plate, on a salad, or in a bowl. I recommend the falafel in a bowl with half turmeric rice and half greens and a side of the tangy harissa ranch.
Birk reports an 11 percent growth in Maya’s second year of operation, despite a car crashing into the restaurant and a pandemic. As he says, “The community has really rallied behind us.”
Casa Linda Plaza, 9540 Garland Road, C362. mayasmediterranean.com.