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Joe's Falafel: Laffa Now, Smile Later

Falafel Laffa at Joe's Falafel
Falafel Laffa at Joe's Falafel
G. Snyder

When fresh from the oven, the variety of Israeli flatbread known as laffa is delicious enough to inspire fever dreams: a stretchable, oval-shaped length of unleavened bread -- not dissimilar to a good Indian naan -- pulled just thick enough to form a kind of textural duality between its soft chewy interior and its char-flecked, crackery crust. You can buy stacks of fresh laffa in the markets of Tel Aviv or, more conveniently, in the crowded bakeries of Pico Bouelvard's Kosher Corridor, though when a fresh batch arrives you should expect to do battle with a gaggle of no-nonsense tichel-wrapped mothers either way. As wonderful as laffa is when dragged through a dish of hummus or spread heavily with baba ghanoush, its ideal state might be when wrapped into handy sandwich form, stuffed with things like crispy falafel balls or chicken shawarma.

It is at this point that we reach Joe's Falafel, an immaculately polished strip-mall restaurant in Universal City that opened about six months ago, close enough to the nearby theme park that it could practically be considered a bonus attraction. If you were to compare Joe's to, say, King Kong 3-D or Transformers: The Ride, the moment that would elicit the most ooohs and aaahs probably would be when owner Joe Mattar opens the lid of his clay-lined taboon oven, which resembles one of those huge laundromat washing machines, pats out a circle of dough and slaps it onto the hot stone. He artfully flips, twists and turns the made-to-order laffa with two long metal canes -- imagine if sculptor Dale Chihuly had chosen yeast and flour as his medium instead of molten glass -- then pulls out the finished product and lays it down on the counter still steaming and sizzling, scenting the entire room with the smell of fresh bread.

As the restaurant's name might suggest, Mattar fries up a pretty mean falafel, too. Lightly spiced with bits of parsley, jagged and crunchy on the outside, moist and airy inside -- you'd be hard-pressed to find a superior version in Los Angeles. There is a decently juicy chicken shawarma, which can be sauced with potent amba , a tangy pickled mango condiment, if you ask. There are those Detroit Coney-style towers of gyro and smoky kefta kebabs cooked on the grill. Dolmas -- herb-speckled rice bound in soft grape leaves and drizzled with lemon and olive oil -- are exceptionally vibrant. You could make a meal of the assortment of mezze, a variety of salads and snacks assembled with garlicky cooked eggplant, roughly chopped tabbouleh salad, feta cheese and red onion, or toasted pita chips dusted with sumac. (Mattar is Greek-Israeli, and his menu has a lot in common with most Lebanese places.)

Despite the choices, most customers don't have much difficulty making a decision. Mattar often offers up a fresh falafel ball on a toothpick to first-timers, then shows off the roaring oven just behind the counter. The falafel sandwich on laffa -- about 10 inches in length, bound tightly in foil -- is an object of both simplicity and beauty. The ideal street food, it comes spread with a bit of buttery tahini, a handful of fattoush salad and a bit of the homemade chile sauce known as skhug.

For dessert there are airy baklava squares drizzled with honey and pistachio; a dense, coconut-enriched semolina cake; shredded knefe lined with sweet cheese; or just a miniature cup of octane-strength coffee scented with cardamom.


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