If you're a fan of the long-standing Falafel Arax in East Hollywood, chances are that part of the charm for you is the bare decor and the somewhat brusque service from owner Ardo Ohanessian or another member of his family. There's a long-standing debate in my family about the best thing to order at Arax: The kid swears by Arax's namesake dish — the falafel — preferring it over gourmet newcomers such as Dune in Atwater; I'm a sucker for the beef shawarma, moistened with pork fat; my husband swears by the tongue sandwich. The cash-only strip mall stalwart is beloved for its food but also for its utilitarian nature.
Now, after almost 35 years in business, Arax is expanding, first to Glendale, where it has already opened a gleaming new shop, and soon to Studio City. The fancy new website doesn't even mention the East Hollywood location. And a visit to the Glendale Arax shows a restaurant with a very different vibe, and even a different menu, from the original.
The new Arax mimics a slick fast-food restaurant, with a bright, clean dining area and workers in uniform behind a counter wielding iPads for ordering. There's a red-and-white theme, and the sandwiches come wrapped in branded paper on red plastic trays. You can even buy elements of the staff uniform: Falafel Arax hats and T-shirts are displayed in a glass case, available for $9.99 each. Apart from that, the only decor in the room is a giant, blown-up L.A. Weekly review of the East Hollywood location penned by Jonathan Gold in 2007.
The menu differs slightly from the original. There's no tongue sandwich, but they've added chicken shawarma, as well as mutabbal as a sandwich or side. Mutabbal is an eggplant dip similar to baba ghanouj, or exactly the same as baba ghanouj, depending on whom you ask. The sandwich version here was a little conservative, just the spread and some veggies and pickles in a pita wrap, but the flavor was still smoky and delicious.
The chicken shawarma, while not the crispy, musky glory of the beef shawarma at the original Arax, was an immensely satisfying lunch. And the falafel balls were practically indistinguishable from the original — hot, crisp pucks of uniformly seasoned chickpea dough. I'd still pick nearby Dune for falafel any day of the week, but there's no doubt this is quicker, and at $5.99 for a sandwich (or $0.59 for a single ball, which is how the kid orders — six at a time) cheaper.
For those just looking for a tasty, affordable meal, Falafel Arax's expansion and sanitization will be welcome, in these two neighborhoods and wherever else they end up (the place certainly looks to be built for franchising or something similar). And yes, unlike the original you can use credit cards here. It's the future! For those of us attached to the shabby charm of the original, these new locations won't deliver on the personality front. But truthfully, I am grateful for one aspect of the slick newcomer: I kind of do want a Falafel Arax T-shirt.
Falafel Arax Glendale, 625 E. Colorado St., Glendale; (818) 696-2303, falafelaraxusa.com.