The most important thing to know about Fala Bar, a vegan falafel joint in the Fairfax District, is that its s'rug is really, really spicy.
One dab of this green hot sauce — a mix of cilantro, jalapeño, garlic, salt, pepper and hot pepper — on a sweet potato falafel ball and you're going to wonder why you don't know more about this fiery condiment. Naturally, you'll enter "s'rug" into Google, but there might be problems, as the first page has more hits of rugs than it does hot sauce. That's when you ask Fala Bar co-founder Mike Shab about s'rug and he'll tell you it's also spelled "skhug," which eliminates all references to carpeting. Then Shab will pronounce s'rug properly before you repeat it and butcher it, to which he will say a pronunciation similar to "shroog" will suffice.
While s'rug is common in Israeli cuisine, the condiment has yet to enjoy mainstream attention like its distant cousin sriracha. However, if Shab and his Fala Bar co-founders get their way, that's about to change, as the sauce soon will be available in 6- to 8-ounce packages at the restaurant. In the meantime, diners will have to make do with the tiny containers that come free with orders, which shouldn't be an issue because did we mention the s'rug is really, really spicy?
SQUID INK: This is the most unprepared I've ever been for an interview, because I know nothing about s'rug. So, please tell me everything there is to know.
MIKE SHAB: S'rug came from the Jews in Yemen. I don't know how long ago. I think it was probably thousands of years ago. The Yemen side of Jews are very into spicy, so they kind of perfected this thing and it basically means "spicy" in Israel. When you go to Israel and ask for "spicy," people know to put s'rug.
What is it exactly?
Our s'rug contains cilantro, jalapeño, garlic, a little bit of salt and pepper, and then there's a specific hot pepper that goes in there, too.
If I was in Yemen, would I get something different?
I think they make it similar. From all the s'rug I've tasted, ours is probably the spiciest, and I think it's that extra hot pepper that my dad puts in there to take it to that next level. My dad helps out a lot with the ingredients, so when we first opened we had four flavors of falafel — original, spicy, sweet potato and crunchy. We would give him a hard time. I'd be like, "Abba, abba, the spicy and the original — they taste the same." He'd say, "No, I put jalapeño. I put this." I was like, "No, it's exactly the same. The original even tastes spicier than the spicy." I think he took it to heart and one day he was like, "Taste this," and my mouth was on fire. Before, customers couldn't really tell the difference either, so he took it on himself to make sure it does have the spicy effect. His whole take on it is, "If somebody wants spicy, I'm going to give them spicy."
Your s'rug and spicy falafel combo is even too spicy for me, so what do you recommend to pair with the s'rug?
I get the kale falafel. It's good on the plate to mix with the little salads that come on the side and also to alleviate the spice. Let's say you get a plate or a pita — mixing it with the hummus gives a really good taste. It's really good on the burgers, too.
What's the response been? Are people surprised at just how spicy your s'rug is?
Yeah. I don't know if you saw those little containers that are put on the outside for customers to use — we actually have one or two of the s'rug stolen a month. It's insane. It's like, just come in and ask and we'll give you s'rug. We're relaunching our grab-and-go menu, so we're going to be packaging the s'rug to sell in the restaurant.
Does every meal come with a side of s'rug? Is that standard?
There are a couple things we try to put in orders — either the s'rug, the amba, which is pickled mangoes, or the spicy carrots. It depends on what you order, so if you order the spicy falafel, we'll try to pair it with the s'rug. If you ordered something that fits the amba, they'd put that in there.
Can people ask for s'rug even if the order doesn't traditionally pair with it?
Oh yeah. For sure.
Are you actively working toward packaging s'rug and making it the next big hot sauce craze?
You saw the location — it's fairly small, so we don't have too much room to play with. Initially when we started, we had a grab-and-go section in the drink area in the fridge. We went away from it, but we're talking about bringing it back and the whole packaging of the s'rug. This interview now is sparking it to happen again. As we speak, they're packaging it to be sold at Fala Bar. Hopefully we figure out how to scale that, but for right now it's going to be internally done.
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How do you like your s'rug?
I use at least a teaspoon. I'm a spicy fan. I put it in one section and dab. I'm very into condiments — I love my catsup, I love my tahini, I love my hummus, I love my s'rug — so when we get compliments, it makes me very happy because a lot of restaurants, especially Mediterranean, concentrate on the meat but the pairings to the rest of the food is pretty off. You have an amazing meat and a lackluster condiment pairing and it's kind of upsetting, to be honest. You get a shawarma plate and the shawarma is nice and tender, the meat is great, the salad has OK flavor, but then you taste the hummus and it tastes like cardboard. It's just bland. It's like you're only getting half a meal. With Fala Bar, the most important thing is we get all of your taste buds working. Whether you're ordering a spicy dish, a sweet potato falafel or a burger, every bite has that impactful flavor to it. The sandwiches are constructed in layers, so each bite is as lasting as the first one.