The Falafel Truth
Photo by Anne FishbeinCONSIDER THE FALAFEL, THE MIDDLE EAST'S FAVORITE grease bomb, a drippy, screaming-orange post card from culinary cultures that would really rather be remembered for kebabs, seasoned rice and sheep's brains garnished with sautéed pine nuts. Most food from Arabic-speaking countries is healthy, sparkling fresh, breathing the vitality of the earth. But a falafel sandwich is an oozing, stinking mess of fried chickpea batter and garlicky sesame goo that may have more calories per ounce than pure hog lard.
Still, as with cheeseburgers and sex, even a bad falafel can be pretty good. I grew up craving the industrial-grade falafel from the cafeteria next to the molecular biology building at UCLA, and I still sneak down there once or twice a year for a hit of the sloppy, odiferous stuff. I am no stranger to the oil-soaked pleasures of Falafel King, whose vat of boiling, orange grease has been bubbling in its Westwood window for generations (they even batter-fry their French fries), or to the reasonably austere sandwiches served at Fairfax-area stands like Eat-a-Pita. Falafel usually finds its way onto my table at the Armenian-Lebanese restaurants Marouch, Caroussel and Carnival. I even have a certain fondness for the hard, Sahara-dry falafel reluctantly served at Zankou Chicken, a dish that I have never seen anybody else actually buy. Lately, I have been going to Aladdin Falafelso often that my truck practically guides itself into the restaurant's tiny parking lot, a cheerful sandwich place in the usual Westside mini-mall, jammed in next to an underachieving tandoori chicken joint and surrounded by storefronts that seem to change ownership more often than money-laundered C-notes at the Republican National Committee.
In contrast to the other falafel stands in town, which seem largely to be Israeli-owned, Aladdin is run by Palestinian-Americans, and the flavor is subtly different, smokier, tinged with cool. A sign posted in the window announces halal (Islamic kosher) meat, and a framed prayer is mounted high on a wall. The air is perfumed with cumin, garlic, clean oil. Classic Arabic riffage wails from the restaurant's stereo -- a small, Tom Schnabelish selection of Middle Eastern CDs rests in a spinning case near the cash register -- and even the Formica of the main counter is inlaid with blocky Islamic designs.
If you have been to a Middle Eastern restaurant lately, you can probably recite Aladdin's menu by heart: lamb kebab plates; rotisserie chicken; sour grape leaves stuffed with veggies and rice. The shwarma is fine, thin, garlicky shavings of extremely well-done meat flavored with cinnamon and cloves and sliced off a rotating spit; three plump little grilled lamb chops, slightly grainy, are not precisely what you'd find at Campanile, but are good value for eight bucks. The tabbouleh salad is fresh and tart, with parsley enough to deodorize a dozen people were it also not so laden with garlic; the baba ghanoush is smooth, fresh and cool. With every dinner comes a bowl of the house's terrific cumin-laced lentil soup, yellow as a school bus, mellowed with a squirt of citrus.
But you've come for the falafel. It is a small miracle, an oblate Ping-Pong ball of ground chickpeas whose thick, tawny crust gives way -- crunch! -- to a dense interior, mildly spiced, barely greasy, tinted green with puréed herbs. Without the benefit of tahini, most falafel collapses into dry powder under the teeth; this one is moister, a little more resilient, almost chewy, and you may go through an entire plate of the stuff (it is also available dressed as a sandwich) before realizing you have forgotten to dampen the patties with sauce. On a plate with hummus, peppers, salad and tart pickled turnips, Aladdin's falafel is a satisfying lunch whether you roll it into a pita or not.
Aladdin may not be the best falafel place in Los Angeles County -- that would be Golden Dome, a Palestinian-owned restaurant in a distant corner of Bellflower -- but if you live on the Westside, it could become a habit.
2180 S. Westwood Blvd., (310) 446-1174. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $13$15. Recommended dishes: lentil soup; falafel; tabbouleh. No alcohol. Lot parking. MC, V.
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