My first summer in Israel was marked by despair. I was 14 and had been dragged here against my will. My bed, in our rental apartment, was built for a gnome. My mother was scared of the sun and would cling to the thin shadows along the walls. My father was in a worrying form of ecstasy, taking us out on night walks in the Judean desert and all-too-frequent trips to the Kotel. And I was in ulpan, studying Hebrew, preparing myself for four years of all-boys religious school in Jerusalem.
When class ended at 12:30, I’d walk up the hill of Keren Hayesod Street and over to Ussishkin Street, surprised by the way the heat rose up through my sandals and spread across the soles of my feet. Sweating, I’d duck into Ozeri’s falafel stand. The man had an oval, dark-brown face, a trimmed gray beard and big brown eyes. He taught me about malawah and lachuch and instilled in me a lifelong love of falafel. I ate there every day for six weeks.
After the army, falafel yet again came to my rescue. I was walking along the streets of Berkeley, California, looking for a job. Every place I went into wanted a resume and I was a discharged soldier with no computer, no email address, and no patience for the American penchant for formality. A Mexican place told me I could not wash dishes in their sink without a working knowledge of Spanish. A pizza place that looked like a serial health code offender asked if I had “specific pizza-related experience.” More ritzy establishments told me to come back in a few years.
Standing outside the north gate of the campus I looked up the hill at a red and black sign that read Beirut Restaurant. Part of me was pulled toward it; the other part recalled that not long before I had worn an IDF uniform in Lebanon and would not likely be welcome. I waited and then let an inner momentum tug me up the hill.
Ali, plaid shirt tight across his round stomach, did not want a resume. I said I was looking for a job and he said, have some lunch. He sat me down, brought out a plate of majadra and olives and some fresh salad and asked whether I knew the food. I said that I did. I think I said I was from Jerusalem rather than Israel during that first meeting but he knew exactly what I meant.
He was a Muslim from Beirut. In Lebanon he had been in the music industry. In Berkeley he owned and ran the restaurant and was in the midst of a divorce. His brother, Mustafa, had come to help from Paris. I looked at his hand. The middle finger was mangled. There was a bullet exit wound on the back of his palm. He extended it to me and told me I was hired. I took it, wondering if the bullet was one of ours.
“Mitch,” he said, “I know you are secret agent for the Mossad and you will take the recipe and give it to the Israeli place on the other side of town.”
Mustafa was coarser than his older brother. He told me he had killed 35 Syrians in battle. He said there was a beautiful Venezuelan girl who worked at the register before me and that as soon as she came back I would be fired. And he told me that while I could learn how to spice the turkey shwarma, roast the eggplants over coals for babaganoush, dice the parsley for the tabouleh, I could not, under any circumstances, watch him spice the falafel mixture. “Mitch,” he said, “I know you are secret agent for the Mossad and you will take the recipe and give it to the Israeli place on the other side of town.”
I had not even known there was an Israeli place on the other side of town. And I had no intention of betraying their friendship, but of all the many tasks I did during the months I worked there – dropping the hot falafel balls into the oil, building the giant skewer of shwarma – I never once got to see them make the chickpea falafel mixture.
The mystery of it has only increased my love.
The place is brightly clean and there are several tables in the shade, which is crucial because anyone who takes falafel to go is either desperate or an imbecile.
And so, without further ado, my top five falafel joints in Jerusalem:
Yuval Tzadok’s Shlomo Hafalafel is a gem of an establishment. Situated near the Mount of Rest cemetery and amidst a gritty stretch of tire shops and garages, the place is brightly clean and there are several tables in the shade, which is crucial because anyone who takes falafel to go is either desperate or an imbecile.
Tsadok is from a distinguished family of falafel makers and he grew up working in his father’s shop in the Bucharim neighborhood in Jerusalem. Eight years ago he came back from India, thought he’d do a hundred different things and then stopped for gas in Givat Shaul. He saw a for-rent sign where the store is located today and considered it “a sign from God.”
I’ve been there several times and there is always a line, and with good reason. The falafel balls are simple –”too much green makes it into a vegetable patty” – the pita is thick and fresh, the spicy schug is homemade and there are no fries on offer. He begins work at 6:30, never taking his children to school or kindergarten, and he scrubs the place to a sheen. “People have to want to eat from my hands,” he said. He smiles and jokes with the crowd as he works, offering up falafel balls and commentary to the restless, salivating line of customers.
Motti Maabari’s Yemenite Falafel on HaNeviim Street is worth a special trip. He opened the place in 1976 and says he learned the secret to great falafel from his father, who also had a falafel stand on the same street and who apparently picked up the secrets during his sojourn in Egypt – en route by foot in 1914 from Yemen to Palestine.
Maabari greets each customer with a falafel ball and a smile. On “a hellishly hot day in July 2001” a suicide bomber blew up in the store and thankfully managed to kill only himself. The Yemenite Falafel stand, like most of the great falafel joints, offers little in the way of extras – there’s falafel, salad, pickles and tahini—but aside from a wonderful smile and a beautiful daughter who used to work there and the occasional offer of a free shot of arak, what sets this place apart is the lachuch. It’s a spongy type of Ethiopian injira that isn’t sour, and, for those like me who love tahini, it’s ideal since it never rips and could probably hold a cup of water for an hour.
Although he keeps strange hours, catering to the nocturnal student crowd, only opening at around 4 p.m., and although his pita was thin and not as fresh as it might have been, Samir Abu-Lail’s French Hill Falafel is simply outstanding. The balls are warm and fragrant and flecked with green. “Each one has 15 ingredients in it,” he said. The Lebanese spice baharat is his secret ingredient.
The shop opened its doors in 1973 and he and his family members have been working there ever since. Another highlight is the smooth white tahini in a bowl. “A lot of the professors and doctors here,” he said, pointing in the direction of the nearby Hebrew University, “started eating here when they were children and they still come back.” Nearby, a balding redheaded man who seemed to fit the part muttered into his pita, “since 1978.”
Shalom Falafel is not memorably great but it is consistently very good. The balls are small, warm and golden. There’s a mildly spicy tomato salad that is excellent and if you go to the one on S.Y. Agnon street – my hunch is that the great man himself was not much of a falafel fanatic but maybe I’m wrong – there is plenty of parking and tables in the shade. (The same cannot be said of the original store on Bezalel Street, where there are around one and a half chairs and you have to have been a New Delhi rickshaw driver in a previous life to be able to find a place to stand.)
The last one was a toss up. I went to Shevach Falafel at the Pat Junction. The owner passed away last year and his wife runs the place. Shevach himself opened the joint a few years after being discharged from the artillery corps’ band – which in and of itself seems like good reason for inclusion – and his wife happily recalled the old days when they used to grind up the chickpeas in laundry baskets. The falafel is good but I continued on.
The next stop was Doron on Emek Refaim Street. The verdict: Average falafel, far-below-average atmosphere and vibe. From there I went to Yom Tov Falafel, which has a great name and is in the old center of Givat Mordechai. The balls were a little under done and the tahini was a bit watery. There were other stops.
To be honest, I never found a perfect fifth, but since this is a top five, my vote goes to Oved Falafel on Derech Beitlechem. The good news: Plain but fresh balls, diverse crowd of Versace-wearing lawyers and middle-school girls in funky-colored Converse, a delicious homemade garlic sauce and a bit of dvar torah with the meal. Downside: the pita was heading toward brittle and fell apart, the service is gratingly slow (no balls handed out here to ease the wait) and there are only two tables outside and they are in the sun most of the day. Nonetheless, I’ll stop my bickering, as it’s plenty good falafel.