Borderless cuisine is here to stay, you can count on it. Yet there’s one classic of international dining that hasn’t yet taken American dining by storm, and I’m a bit puzzled by this.
Because the food in question would seem to tick all the right boxes. It’s savory and full of spices; it plays nicely with a wide variety of sauces; and you can eat it with a knife and fork, as finger food, or in a sandwich.
When well prepared, it delivers a delightful sequence of textures in a single bite: crunchy, then soft, then chewy. And it’s vegetarian, or even vegan, yet satisfies hunger as thoroughly as any meat-based dish. I’m talking of course about falafel, those delightful golden brown balls of ground chickpeas mixed with spices and, usually, deep fried. (The headline probably gave it away.)
Falafel is delicious, versatile and uncomplicated. And while hummus, a Middle Eastern dish that has found its way to menus everywhere, is a mere condiment to be spread on other things, falafel can be a side dish or a main. Add it to any menu and it would immediately provide more flavor and intrigue than onion rings or mozzarella sticks. It is, it says here, only a matter of time before this happens.
The origin of falafel is disputed. Some believe it was first made in Egypt a millennium ago and gradually spread throughout the Middle East. What’s not in dispute is that many people, at least in our area, first encountered it at a New York City food cart, alongside gyros and shish kabab. Whether they ordered it or went with something more familiar is a question for them to answer.
In Mercer County by my count there are three Middle Eastern-style restaurants in Princeton, two in Hamilton and two in Trenton, most having opened in the past decade. Nor is Middle Eastern cuisine particularly commonplace in Northern Burlington County. There are a couple of well reviewed places down in Wrightstown — Gab Shak and Afghan Kabob. I have no doubt that in a few years we will have seen many more open throughout the area.
Recently I enlisted a few fellow tasters from the office to make our way to five of the seven in Mercer County in search of the best falafel. Along the way we also sampled some popular skewered meats to give us a slightly broader take.
Aryana Kabab and Grill
We started our tour at Aryana Kabab and Grill in (335 Route 33, Mercerville; (609) 528-0141; aryanakababandgrill.com). Just behind Applebee’s, Aryana doesn’t wow with its facade or decor, but it does with its food.
Aryana’s falafel platter ($7.99) came with eight marshmallow shaped falafel, doused with white sauce, accompanied by bread, Afghan rice and salad. We also got individual skewers of lamb tikka ($3.99) and beef kofta ($2.99) since we had the falafel platter, but you can get a combo kabab platter for around $11.99.
The falafel was pretty good. Each piece was thoroughly fried, with a crisp exterior and a medium soft interior, which one taster described as “grainy.” With a low surface-to-volume ratio, these falafel were high on crunch. Aryana has three main sauces, a white sauce which they insist does not contain yogurt, a green cilantro sauce and a red hot sauce. Any of the three makes a fantastic accompaniment to the falafel or the spiced, tender basmati rice. The bread was good, naan-like and fresh.
We were more smitten with the skewers. The lamb was beautifully marinated and charred with a pleasant, mild lamb flavor. One taster mistook it for beef. My companions enjoyed the ground beef kofta more than I. Where I found it a bit dry and overseasoned, they judged it rich and pleasant in flavor.
My favorite thing that I’ve had there, though, may be the stewed chickpeas, available as a side dish. Hearty and full of umami, it is worth the price of whatever entree it comes with. I had it on a separate visit, so my co-tasters did not get to enjoy it. You, and they, will have to take my word for it.
Afghan Kabob and Grill
We next went to Afghan Kabob* and Grill (888 Route 33, Hamilton; (609) 584-5566, afghankabobandgrill.com), a short way down Route 33 toward Hamilton Square. Neither Afghan Grill nor Aryana puts much focus on the decor, preferring perhaps to emphasize the food. As tasty as the food is, I find it hard to argue with their decisions.
As is often the case with Middle Eastern food, the menus did not correspond precisely in terms of options. We were able to again order lamb tikka, but the ground beef was ID’ed as beef seekh kabob rather thank kofta. What you get may vary slightly in terms of preparation, but that could be true even at restaurants where dishes do have similar names.
Individual skewers were not on offer, so we got a combo platter for $18.99 plus a falafel platter ($7.99). We also got an order of Afghan bread, which was delicious — thick and chewy with a toasty, yeasty zing.
We were quite surprised when the falafel came out looking identical to the falafel at Aryana. It tasted the same as well. This time it did come accompanied by a tasty tahini sauce (made with sesame paste, garlic and lemon). We asked if the falafel there was homemade, but the answer was not clear.
To be fair, neither restaurant lists falafel prominently on its menu. I guess the best conclusion I can draw is that if you’re in the mood for falafel and in Hamilton Township, it does not particularly matter whether you go to Afghan Kabob and Gril or Aryana Kabab and Grill.
On to the meat. Again we enjoyed the lamb tikka thoroughly. As at Aryana it had a fantastic char and pleasant lamb flavor. My companions preferred the beef kofta at Aryana, while I slightly preferred the Afghan seekh kabob. At both restaurants, the Afghan rice was excellent, and their white and green sauces, while not totally the same, were similarly tasty. One of our tasters preferred Aryana’s white sauce, finding it to have less of a sour character. Afghan Kabob and Grill did not have a red hot sauce.
I’ll admit that the falafel experience in Hamilton gave me pause. True it was plenty tasty at both places, but I could hardly feel like I was enjoying something special when the look and flavor was indistinguishable from one to the other. I would go back to either restaurant for its meat skewers or rice in a second. But the sameness of the falafel, whether it was coincidental or the restaurants have a common supplier, makes it less likely that I will go back for that.
Fortunately, we had more falafel luck as we pressed on. Our next stop was Mamoun’s Falafel (20 Witherspoon St., Princeton; (609) 454-5936; mamouns.com), a fledgling New York-based chain. With falafel in the name, we figured Mamoun’s would have to offer more of a singular experience. We were right.
We ordered shish kebob and kafta kebob platters ($12.50 each), both accompanied by rice and fresh pita bread, as well as pickled cucumber, beet and olive. This kafta was made with lamb, not beef. To go with the meat we ordered a side of four falafel ($6). One member of our group mentioned that Olives (22 Witherspoon St., Princeton; (609) 921-1569; olivesprinceton.com), an eclectic bakery/deli one door down, also serves falafel, so we ordered their falafel platter ($5.95) to surreptitiously taste alongside Mamoun’s. At all four restaurants mentioned so far, you order your food at a counter and either wait for it or have it brought out to you.
I’ll cut to the chase: Mamoun’s had our favorite falafel. Why was it the best? Like most of the falafel we tried, Mamoun’s brings flavors of onion, garlic and cumin. I think the secret here is the texture. Every other falafel we tried was uniform in shape, with round exteriors that hardened into shells in the fryer, with trapped steam helping keep the centers more tender, not to mention hot.
Mamoun’s falafel had a roundish, but less regular outside, resulting in a more varied, almost meatlike texture. It was also the only falafel to come with tahini sauce drizzled on it.
We may have liked Mamoun’s falafel more than Olives, but Olives offers great value. Not only do you get four substantial falafel balls for $5.95, you also get pita bread, hummus (which one taster said is his favorite hummus to be found anywhere), salad and two stuffed grape leaves. As a complete falafel meal, you just about can’t beat it.
Mamoun’s grilled lamb was good, but not in our opinion on the same level as the Hamilton restaurants. It was less charred and had a gamier flavor, the most assertive of any of the lamb we tried. We also found a wide variety of quality from piece to piece. Some were fatty and tough, others perfectly tender in the same platter. The kafta kabob on the other hand was a bit better than the Hamilton restaurants, less well done with perhaps a more delicate spice mix.
Our next stop was Marhaba (182 Nassau St., Princetonl; (609) 423-2850; marhabaprinceton.com). With its ornate Egyptian theme and sit-down service, Marhaba offers a different experience from the others. We had to get a little creative to keep the cost in line with the other restaurants.
The falafel was straightforward: $6.50 for an appetizer of four. To taste Marhaba’s skewers we went with the Meat Extravaganza ($20.90), which came with marinated grilled lamb, kufta (ground lamb and beef combo this time), a lamb chop, gyro meat and marinated grilled chicken, accompanied by rice, tahini and a tomato salad.
The rice at Mamoun’s and Marhaba was similar. Both were shorter grained and stickier than Afghan or Aryana Grill, with more pronounced allspice flavor. Perfectly good, but I preferred the first two restaurants’ rice.
We all agreed that the meat at Marhaba was on another level. The meat was delicious everywhere we had it, but the substantial chunks of grilled lamb at Marhaba were as tender as filet mignon, and the kufta was perhaps the most refined, most well cooked of the variations we tried. The gyro meat — they don’t call it shawarma — was also sublime.
Marhaba’s falafel was not quite as good. Though large, they were deep fried almost to a point of overdoneness. The faint bitterness of burned oil diminished our enjoyment. A nice tahini sauce helped somewhat.
Efes Mediterranean Grill
Next on our journey was Efes Mediterranean Grill (235 Nassau St., Princeton; (609) 683-1220; efesgrill.com), a Turkish-themed restaurant just a ways up the road from Marhaba. We again got the falafel appetizer ($5 for four balls and some iceberg lettuce), and this time a lamb shish kebab wrap ($8) to go with it. You can get both in platter form, and Efes’ ground lamb/beef entree is called gyro doner ($10 for a small platter, $14 for a large). We will have to try it next time around.
The Efes falafel was an interesting variation on the theme. The flavor was similar to all the others. It tasted pan fried rather than deep fried, with a crispy crust that profoundly contrasted with the softest inside of any we tasted. We enjoyed it, but agreed that it was slightly greasy.
The wrap was a fun change of pace from the platters. It came amply filled with lamb, onion, lettuce and tomato. The lamb was tender, nicely marinated and mild in flavor, uncharred but offering a whiff of char in the background, perhaps imparted by some distant coals. It came with a yogurt dill sauce, a green sauce and a hot sauce for condiments. Not only did it make for a great sandwich, it also paired nicely with the falafel.
I asked my companions which of the restaurants we’d visited would be the first one they would go back to with their families. One said Marhaba, the other said Aryana. Me, I’d say that the first place I’d go back to for falafel is Mamoun’s — in fact I have already been back — but I truly don’t think you could make a mistake in choosing any one of them.
I wrote above that it’s only a matter of time before falafel joins other comfort food favorites on menus everywhere, regardless of restaurant theme. The fact is that this trend is already underway. Ray’s Sub Shop (1540 Pennington Road, Ewing; (609) 771-8006; raysubshop.com) has a falafel hoagie ($4.99) on its menu, and Tower Dogs (4110 Quakerbridge Road, Lawrence; (609) 269-9056; tower-dogs.com) offers falafel as a substitute for any of the hot dogs on its menu.
I stopped into Tower Dogs on my own one day at lunch to see how this would work. I’ll admit that I had a hard time picturing myself substituting falafel for a hot dog on the Cuban Dog (melted Swiss, pulled pork, yellow mustard, dill pickle) or the Carolina Dog (chili, yellow mustard, onions, cole slaw, paprika), so I opted for the Buffalo Dog.
The sandwich came out as three falafel balls in a toasted hot dog bun, doused with buffalo sauce and blue cheese dressing. The falafel had a similar flavor to the other restaurants’ versions, including lots of cumin, but texturally was quite different. This falafel did not seem to have been deep fried — both outside and inside were soft to the point of mush. In terms of mouthfeel I would say it’s closer to the inside of a knish.
Tower Dog’s falafel was tasty enough, but I confess to being less than impressed from a value standpoint. For $7.99 I’d expect to get more than three falafel balls in a hot dog bun. Compare it to Olives, where you get more falafel plus all the extra stuff for $2 less, and there’s no contest. I like the idea of falafel spreading out beyond the confines of Middle Eastern cuisine, but I think there are better ways to experience it than this.
*We visited five restaurants and kabab/kabob/kebob/kebab was spelled four ways. I have deferred to the spelling used by each restaurant when describing that restaurant’s food.