If you want to start a fight — or at least a very impassioned discussion — just bring up falafel’s origin story. Some people believe the first delicious chickpea fritters hit the hot oil in Egypt 1,000 years ago. Others credit sixth-century India. And cultures across the Middle East claim falafel as their own. Who can blame them?
There are few things more satisfying than a still-warm pita stuffed with crispy, hot falafels, drizzled with tahini and spicy sauces and nestled among just enough pickle-y veggies and salad-y things to feel downright good for us.
So we set out to sample falafel spots across the East and South Bays, from Walnut Creek’s Manakish to Berkeley’s King of Kebab and Santa Clara’s Shawarmaji. Here are our favorites. (And if we missed your fave, let us know. You’ll find a contact form at the end of this story.)
Manakish Oven & Grill, Walnut Creek
You could eat at this cute Walnut Creek restaurant almost every other day for a year and not order the same thing twice, so it’d be inaccurate to call it just a falafel joint. But if you go for the falafel, you’re making a wise move.
The restaurant is named for a type of Levant flatbread (sometimes referred to as an “Arabic pizza”), and its menu touches on a wide variety of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes ranging from starters and snacks (shawarma fries, anyone?) to the namesake flatbreads, bowls, wraps, salads and kebab dishes.
The falafel: First off, they’re made fresh and are crispy, not crunchy (meaning you are feasting on beans, not batter), and are nice and moist on the inside. The wraps are served with hummus, lettuce, cucumbers, onions, pickles, turnips and tahini sauce stuffed in a lavash bread and lightly toasted ($12.99, served with fries). That’s our recommendation, but other falafel options include a falafel bowl ($13.99) and a baked falafel manakish, with hummus, tahini, tomato cucumber salad, pickles and turnips ($17.25) which easily serves two or three. The purist option: 10 falafels with tahini dipping sauce ($10.99).
Beyond falafel: The menu is stacked with all manner of shawarma, manakish, wraps, kebab platters, salads and such sides as hummus, tabouleh and labneh ($8.25 each) or baba ganoush ($9.25) — all served with warm pita bread. If you want to check out the namesake specialties, we recommend the zesty cauliflower and eggplant manakish ($17.95); meat-lowers can opt for tri-tip shawarma manakish ($19.25).
Details: Opens at 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. on weekends with outdoor and indoor seating at 2905 N. Main St., Walnut Creek; www.manakishoven.com.
Mediterranean Wraps, Palo Alto
Mediterranean Wraps may be home to the perfect falafel. This humble eatery on Palo Alto’s California Avenue offers meticulously prepared chickpea fritters with salad, in a burrito-style wrap or simply plain.
And if you time your visit right, you may be served an extra piping-hot falafel ball fresh from the fryer, handed to you in a piece of parchment paper with the rest of your meal.
The falafel: The size of a hearty meatball, these falafel are crispy on the outside and moist and tender on the inside. Go for the veggie wrap ($14), which emerges from a paper bag roughly the size and shape of a tallboy of beer. The wrap is enormous. But just because it looks like enough food for two doesn’t mean you’ll have the discipline to save some for later.
The wrap blends fresh falafel with hummus, zucchini, cauliflower, tomato, lettuce and tahini, all encased in a remarkably sturdy flour tortilla. The house spicy sauce packs some zing, if you’re ready for an extra kick.
Beyond falafels: Wash it all down with a fizzy soda – San Pellegrino Aranciata or Orangina ($3.50-$3.95) – and for dessert, don’t skip the halvah bar ($5).
Details: Open from 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and until 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday at 433 California Ave., Palo Alto; mediterraneanwraps.com.
King of Kabab, Berkeley
Enter this unassuming storefront, and you might find a mini-U.N. convention in progress — a family of French tourists, perhaps, and a bevy of Palestinian businessmen. Greeting them all is chef and founder Khaled Azzam. He hails from Jordan and shares that country’s sense of hospitality and talent for bright, flavorful and – despite the frying and grilling – quite healthy-tasting food.
Let your nose guide you on what to order, whether it be falafel fragrantly sizzling in oil or the shawarma meats dripping flavor juices on their rotating poles. You can get it to go or sit in a small open-air patio among climbing cherry-tomato vines.
The falafel: The pickleball-sized falafel are so good, they’re sold plain by the dozen. But the way to go is the stuffed falafel plate ($13.99), which gives you three falafel over rice with hummus, pickles and a salad. The falafel are filled with soft, sweet onions and sumac, and are expertly fried with a crunchy texture, thanks to a sesame-seed topping. The hummus in its golden pool of olive oil is great for dipping in pita, and the brothy rice is spiked with vegetables and deep-noted spices. Everything is tied together with a drizzle of excellent green yogurt sauce.
Beyond the falafel: The place is called “King of Kabab,” so if you want to go carnivorous, try the kefta kabab plate ($13.99) or chicken shawarma wrap ($11.99). Afterward, peruse the glass case full of sweet treats like honey-soaked baklava ($2) or Turkish Delights in flavors like cinnamon-apple-milk and roasted-pistachio-pomegranate ($2.49).
Details: Open from 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday through Saturday at 3043 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley; kingofkabab.com.
Falafel’s Drive-In, San Jose
In the beginning, Anton Nijmeh had to give his handmade falafels away. Most of the customers at his San Jose drive-in were there for the burgers. They’d never even seen chickpea fritters, let alone had them tucked inside soft pita bread with tomatoes and cucumber and a magical sauce.
Fast forward a half century or so, and the family-run restaurant that Nijmeh and his wife Zahie started in 1966 is a South Bay cult favorite. Regular customers, who represent 80 percent of the business, says Nijmeh’s daughter, Joanne Boyle, line up seven days a week to get their hands on Falafel’s Drive-In’s popular pita sandwiches ($7 small, $9 large).
Despite the name, this is not a drive-in. It’s a park and walk up. Order at the counter, then take your meal to go or grab one of the picnic-style tables, where you can soak up the eatery’s colorful San Jose-centric murals as you nosh.
The falafel: Crisply fried and tender inside, these tasty chickpea fritters are tucked in warm, housemade pita bread with lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, tahini and the drive-in’s signature hot sauce, a superb sweet-and-tangy mix that takes your falafel to the next level.
Beyond falafels: The restaurant’s thick, fresh banana shakes are so beloved, they’re part of the Drive-In’s signature combo: a falafel sandwich and shake ($13). They offer other Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dishes too, including kebabs and gyros, as well as American fast-food staples such as onion rings and fries that “now taste extra special,” Boyle says, “because they are fried with the falafel balls.”
Details: Open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Saturday and until 6 p.m. Sunday at 2301 Stevens Creek Blvd. in San Jose; falafelsdrivein.com.
Shawarmaji, Oakland and Santa Clara
As a chef who exploded on the Bay Area scene, it’s appropriate Mohammad Abutaha serves “missile-style” shawarma – long, thin tubes of savory fillings you jam in your mouth like food mortars down a tube.
Abutaha moved here from Amman, Jordan, and has expanded from an Oakland pop-up to two operations in the South and East Bay. He has his own line of garlicky toum sauce and lamb and chicken spices, and once declared, “If there was a better place for shawarma, I wouldn’t have opened this restaurant.” But his flavors hold up, and that includes the falafel, which are flattened pucks deep-fried until brown and nutty and full of flavor (probably thanks to his branded falafel spice blend).
The falafel: You can order them in khobz hamam, an airy French bread that’s popular in Morocco, or better yet in a foot-long, cast-iron-pressed flour wrap because it’s so fun to eat ($11). The wrap is stuffed with cucumber-tahini salad, mint, lemon and delightful purple-pickled turnips. For a dollar more, you can go crazy by adding eggplant and fries into the mix.
Beyond the falafel: Diners seem to love the Aleppo-salt fries ($5) and parsley-loaded tabouleh salad ($5). For dessert, there’s Egyptian rice pudding with orange-blossom water ($5) and Layali Amman with semolina, milk and halawa sauce ($5). For those who want to stay up for a while, there’s also iced Jordanian street coffee ($5.50).
Details: Open from 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday at 2123 Franklin St., Oakland, and 2281 The Alameda, Santa Clara; theshawarmaji.com
Operating out of a tiny storefront on Belmont’s Ralston Avenue, Falafelle packs an impressive rainbow of pickled vegetables and flavors into its plates. The vegetarian eatery opened in 2016 and has generated buzz over the years: It was listed among last year’s top 100 places to eat in the Bay Area by Yelp and this year’s 25 essential Peninsula restaurants list by Eater.
The falafel: These falafel are slightly different in composition than some of the others presented here – they’re slightly smaller and less crispy in texture, but the flavors are spot-on. The falafel combo plate ($15.95 with pita) comes with a rainbow of pickled vegetables that steal the show, brightening the meal and lending each bite a fresh, tangy acidity. We’re talking hummus, tabbouleh, dolma, cabbage, beets, sauerkraut, roasted red peppers, pickled turnips and cucumbers, sumac onions, banana peppers AND garbanzo beans.
Beyond falafels: Don’t miss the eatery’s warm, pillowy pita which can be added to any dish or purchased on its own. There are desserts too, including baklava.
Details: Opens at 11 a.m. Monday through Saturday for takeout at 1035 Ralston Ave., Belmont; falafelle.com.
Falafel, Etc., Fremont
For the better part of two decades, Falafel, Etc. has been a favorite among lovers of Middle Eastern fare. The falafel may get marquee billing, but it’s really only one of many tempting dishes on the lineup.
Order at the counter then go find a table in the dining room or, if the weather’s fine, out on the front patio. The friendly staff will bring your cooked-to-order deliciousness to your table.
The falafel: The falafel balls are fried extra crispy on the outside, but still green and nicely fluffy inside — the latter, we’re told, thanks to a bit of baking soda in the mix. We prefer to go the hand-held sandwich ($10) route — the falafels nestled in a fresh pita with a tasty mix of pickles, tomatoes and lettuce — but they do a falafel platter ($16), too, with hummus and tabbouleh.
Beyond falafels: The lamb kabob plate ($18.50) delivers a generous portion of well-seasoned lamb accompanied by rice and Greek salad. And the Chicken Shawarma sandwich ($10) is stuffed with shawarma-seasoned chicken that has been slow-cooked on a rotisserie.
Details: Open from 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon to 8:30 p.m.. Sunday at 39200 Fremont Blvd. in Fremont; falafeletc.com.
Falafel & Things, Redwood City
The food truck stationed on Redwood City’s Veterans Boulevard may look humble, but it’s a sleeper hit, claiming an impressive 4.9 star-standing on Yelp.
The falafel: Falafel & Things offers a variety of platter options, including a veggie lover’s combo ($15) that comes with a smattering of tasty bites: falafel, of course, plus hummus, baba ganoush, dolma, tahini, pita, a salad and a house hot sauce. The falafel itself is excellent — crispy on the outside, moist and flavorful on the inside — made with chickpeas, onion, garlic, pepper, herbs and a house spice mix. Note that it’s all served to-go; there is no seating onsite.
Beyond falafels: This food truck also offers chicken and beef gyros, plus an array of shakshuka and meatball dishes, from Korean barbecue meatballs to Thai sweet chili ones. Thirsty? Try the lemon hibiscus tea ($2), cooked with hibiscus flowers, mint and lemon.
Details: Open from 11:15 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekday on the northwest-bound side of 975 Veterans Boulevard in Redwood City (between the In-N-Out and a dental office.) falafelandthings.com.
Falafel Stop, Sunnyvale
Scads of tech workers drop what they’re doing at noon each day to line up here for falafels and other appealing dishes. There are plenty of worthy items to order on what’s billed as a Mediterranean street-food menu, yet we rarely stray from the signature dish mentioned in the restaurant’s name.
The falafel: The falafel sandwiches ($9.62) are incredible – and huge – with ample amounts of crispy falafel, a wide assortment of veggies, housemade pickles, sauerkraut, tahini and spices stuffed, rather than wrapped, in a large pita. The soft, warm, freshly baked pita bread is so good, it’s worth ordering on its own as a side ($1.37).
Beyond falafels: Try the Israeli-style schnitzel ($12), breaded, fried chicken breast tenders in a pita, or the Jerusalem Mix ($12), which offering a combination of chicken and Maui onions sauteed in spices and served in a pita. Save room for dessert — they do a delicious Bavarian Cream topped with chocolate and chopped walnuts.
Details: Open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily at 1325 Sunnyvale-Saratoga Road in Sunnyvale; falafelstop.com.
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