Fast-casual falafels take over downtown

By: Alison Neumer Lara
November 16, 2009

After eating falafel every day (and usually twice a day) for a week, I can share a couple of relevant observations about this little chickpea fritter.

For one, the city’s downtown lunch crowd is all about it. Every fast-casual counter place I tried — and there are a bunch now — had a line. Next, where there’s good falafel, there’s shawarma, marinated layers of spit-roasted meat. And finally, only a select group of quick-serve eateries do it all well. Here are my three best bets for a Middle Eastern lunch on the go.

Benjyehuda
212 W. Van Buren St.
(312) 408-2365
http://www.benjyehuda.com/

Newcomer Benjyehuda, which opened this fall, is named after its owner, Benji Rosen, and Ben Yehuda Street, a busy shopping boulevard in Jerusalem. But it seems to take its business cues from Chipotle: minimalist menu laid out grid-style (I swear it’s the same font), industrial steel and concrete finishes, and quick assembly-line service.

The upshot: It works. Main offerings — falafel and chicken or beef shawarma — are well-seasoned, flavorful and served hot in pita, flatbread or on salad greens or rice ($5-$8). Falafels are crispy and golden outside, loosely packed and flecked with parsley inside. Turmeric-yellow chicken shawarma manages a tasty balance between juicy meat and crispy bits. A pile of excellent garnishes and salads finishes off the dishes, including of note tomato-cucumber salad, tangy red cabbage slaw and a killer fresh hot sauce.

Thick-cut, skin-on fries ($2) are tasty and golden but need more salt. Churros ($2) — yes, churros — are the only dessert, but were crisp and greaseless.

I Dream of Falafel
331 S. Franklin St.
(312) 913-9660
http://www.idreamoffalafel.com/

Around the corner, the already popular I Dream of Falafel goes in a different direction with its namesake dish: This falafel is finely ground and dense, with enough parsley to turn the inside green, and all encased in a thick, dark-brown crust that stands up to generous douses of tahini and yogurt sauce.

Chicken and beef shawarma are tasty, too, but I’d especially come back for the juicy ground lamb kabob wrapped in a Lebanese flatbread ($5), or the great vegetarian plate: piles of hummus, baba ghanoush, falafel and dolmas ($7). All meats and falafel are available over rice or salad, too ($7), but the rice — totally bland — is a waste of $2. Go for a base of hummus instead ($6). Lunch
extras are traditional, such as tabbouleh ($3), lentil soup ($2) and baklava ($3).

Area professionals also line up for I Dream of Falafel’s take on breakfast — falafel-filled omelet, or “falafelette” ($4), and shawarma omelets ($4) — in the restaurant’s simple and inviting space.

El Souk
808 N. State St.
(312) 751-8600
http://www.elsoukrestaurant.com/

In the Gold Coast, El Souk is quietly turning out well-spiced, carefully prepared Mediterranean food with quality ingredients. Unlike the two spots above, you won’t see any stylish light fixtures or flat-screen TVs inside. It’s part of a dingy stretch of State Street, so you’re likely to walk right by, but don’t — not if you want a light and crispy falafel sandwich ($4) or a bowl of thick red lentil soup ($3). Lebanese spinach pies ($5) and thin, herbed flatbread called mankouchi ($3) also stand out.

And shawarma? Of course. Chicken or beef are served as a sandwich in fresh, soft pita ($6) or a larger portion over basmati rice ($9). Take it to go with the other traditional shawarma side — a pile of fries ($2).