Among those not privy to the complexities of Middle Eastern cuisine, it may come as a surprise to learn that falafel is quite the controversial food. Falafel is popular across the Middle Eastern world: being vegetarian, inexpensive, and neutral kosher-wise, it makes an ideal meal. However, the politics of falafel run rampant, with many countries claiming to be the rightful home of the popular snack. Here in Cambridge, however, you can order your falafel, hold the politics. FM brings you a round-up of great Middle Eastern eateries in the Boston area.
17 Nichols Ave., Watertown
Open M-Sa 11 a.m.- 9 p.m.
Since opening in 1990, Jerusalem-born Walid Masoud’s Sepal has perfected the fine art of falafel. “Falafel is table food in the Middle East,” says Masoud. “You can have it for breakfast, lunch or dinner.” He proudly points out that his falafel sandwiches were recently named on a PBS food documentary as one of the 16 Best Sandwiches in America, and are prepared with eight fresh vegetables and herbs. Sure enough, the insides of Masoud’s falafels are distinctively dark green, with a crunchy outer shell—so light that it’s nearly impossible to distinguish between the baked and fried varieties offered at Sepal. The evening buffet, available Mondays through Wednesdays, presents a basic selection of fatoush salad, hummus and baba ganoush, okra with cilantro and garlic, chicken with sumac, lima beans and a deliciously savory maklouba—hearty chunks of lamb or tofu, cauliflower and eggplant sealed with rice and cooked in lamb broth, then turned upside down and served steaming hot. Other Sepal specialties include the warm, filling red lentil soup and the rich butternut squash, chickpea and carrot soup—both vegan-friendly and served with traditional toasted bread. Finish off your meal with a cup of cardamom-spiced Arabic coffee and Masoud’s slightly-sweet rolled baklava, or the feathery cheese-and-shredded-phyllo pastry called kunaffa. Sepal’s atmosphere is cozy and casual, with wood-paneled walls hung with Lebanese tapestries and handmade tables accented with blue and white tiles. Though Watertown is a bit out of the way, Sepal is well worth the trip if you’ve got a car (or endless patience with the T) at your disposal.
324 Harvard St., Brookline
Open Su-Th 10 a.m.- 10 p.m., Friday 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Middleastern food purists swear by this kosher Brookline eatery. A can’t miss restaurant where regulars rave the falafel sandwich is the best they’ve tried—and the prices aren’t bad, either. Just be sure to remember that on Saturdays, Rami’s is closed for Shabbat, so schedule dates accordingly.
48 Gloucester St., Boston
Open M-Th 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m., F-Sa 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Su 12 p.m.-10 p.m.
This brightly-decorated, cozily-romantic café has been tucked away off Newbury Street for 12 years. According to owner Moshe Sander, local students and visiting tourists flock to his handmade tables for platters of falafel, shawarma and kebabs. Served on a bed of creamy baba ganoush, tahini and slightly salty hummus drizzled with olive oil and paprika, Sander’s falafel is crunchy and crispy on the outside, with a heavy, crumbly inner texture. Accented by onions and green peppers, the mixed chicken and lamb kebabs arrive sizzling at the table, while the chicken and lamb shawarma selections offer even juicier, thinly-shaved chunks of meat. The oversized pitas are piping hot and chewy, served in portions that are big enough to scoop up every last bit of baba ganoush. Lit with lamps brought from Sander’s native Israel and painted in warm golden tones, the interior of Café Jaffa is an ideal setting for an early evening post-shopping snack or a casual first date.
1383 Beacon St., Brookline
Open M-Sa 12 p.m. -11 p.m., Su 12 p.m. -10 p.m.
If you’re looking for shawarma on the go, this is it. Shawarma King is a casual eatery that caters to a steady flow of take-out clientele. The restaurant specializes in shawarma sandwiches—tender, marinated slices of chicken, lamb or beef rolled in a warm pita, drizzled with tahini sauce, and stuffed with parsley, onions, tomatoes and dill pickles. While they wait, customers can watch the countermen slicing the steaming chunks of meat off the upright shawarma machine, or browse the assortment of imported canned juice drinks and pre-packaged desserts. Lebanese co-owner Hasan Kassab credits a “special recipe from home” loaded with Seven Spice and freshly-soaked and ground chickpeas as the base for the restaurant’s falafels. Though decent, the fried vegetarian dish was not nearly as good as the schwarma. Other tasty specialties are the syrupy rolled baklava fingers and the vitamin-rich “cocktail juice”—a smoothie-like blend of strawberries, guava, mango and banana.