The falafel is one of those foods that has migrated a long distance across multiple countries, spawning many variations, preferences and preparations. Some falafel are made from fava (though far less commonly in the U.S.) and some from chickpeas. They can be filled with different herbs, or onions depending on the country and, really, the person making them. Today we pit the falafel from Simon's Cafe in Sherman Oaks against the Glatt Kosher restaurant Haifa in the Pico/Robertson area (there also happens to be the only Glatt Kosher Subway in L.A. not too far away).
Simon's, like Haifa, calls itself a Mediterranean restaurant, which can be a bit of a vague description. But while Haifa tends more toward the direction of Israel (though they do serve a Yemenite beef stew), chef Simon Elmaleh hails from Casablanca. His falafel immediately stands out as different from what you expect. There's a lightness to them in just about every aspect-- the shade of brown, the breading and the weight, as if a particularly large one could keep you buoyant after a boating disaster. These falafel, served with baba ghanoush rather than tahini, are fried expertly, near perfect spheres with a golden crackling exterior that collapses around their delicate interior once the slightest pressure is applied. Though a bit under-seasoned for my liking, they have the potential to change the way you think about falafel, inviting you to wonder how different the other versions really could be.
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At Haifa, the falafel are more what you'd expect, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Flattened somewhat into discs, they're darkly colored, denser, heartier and with more crunch, the interior tinged green from parsley. Their flavor is mellow but not distant, and they could certainly substitute for a piece of meat when necessary. Maybe, though, I've had too many falafel that fall into that category, or maybe I'm just impressed by anything fried that remains light, but for my taste, today's winner comes from Simon's Cafe. After all, who ever expects to be surprised by their falafel?