9 awesome Bay Area falafel spots to try

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.

WALNUT CREEK, CA: DECEMBER 31: Patrons dine at Manakish Oven and Grill in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)
Manakish Oven and Grill serves falafel, shawarma and manakish, a Levant flatbread that will remind you of pizza — but with shawarma. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group File) 

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;

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;

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.

The stuffed falafel plate with rice, salad, hummus and pickles from King of Kabab in Berkeley. (John Metcalfe/Bay Area News Group)
The stuffed falafel plate with rice, salad, hummus and pickles from King of Kabab in Berkeley. (John Metcalfe/Bay Area News Group) 

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;

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).

A falafel sandwich at Falafel Drive-In in San Jose, Calif., on Saturday, May 13, 2023. (Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group)
A falafel sandwich at Falafel Drive-In in San Jose, Calif., on Saturday, May 13, 2023. (Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group) 

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;

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.

The falafel sandwich on toasted khobz hamam ($11) with added fries and eggplant ($1) at Shawarmaji in Oakland. (John Metcalfe/Bay Area News Group)
The falafel sandwich on toasted khobz hamam ($11) with added fries and eggplant ($1) at Shawarmaji in Oakland. (John Metcalfe/Bay Area News Group) 

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;

Falafelle, Belmont

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 combo plate from Falafelle in Belmont is vegan and is served with six falafel balls, hummus, tabbouleh, dolma plus a smattering of cabbage, beets, sauerkraut, roasted red peppers, house salad, pickled turnips, sumac onions, pickled cucumbers, mild banana peppers and garbanzo beans. (Photo by Kate Bradshaw/Bay Area News Group.)
The vegan falafel combo plate from Belmont’s Falafelle includes hummus, tabbouleh, dolma plus a smattering of cabbage, beets, sauerkraut, roasted red peppers, pickled turnips, sumac onions and more. (Kate Bradshaw/Bay Area News Group.) 

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;

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.

The falafel sandwich at Falafel, Etc. in Fremont. (Jim Harrington, staff)
The falafel sandwich at Falafel, Etc. in Fremont. (Jim Harrington, staff) 


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.

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