Meatless burgers are all the rage these days. If you haven’t tried an Impossible or Beyond Burger yet, you’d be pretty surprised at how well they emulate the taste and texture of a traditional beef patty, making replacing beef in your burger (and decreasing the impact of commercial cattle raising on the environment) less jarring than you’d expect. And since everyone’s starting to get hip to the modern veggie patty, it’s apropos to talk about its protein-packed Middle Eastern forefather: the falafel.
Popular for its crunchy exterior and fluffy center, falafel is made with chickpeas (sometimes fava beans, depending on the region), spices, garlic, onion and herbs like parsley and cilantro. The raw ingredients are blitzed together and then deep fried.
You’ll find the fritters are either spherical or shaped like hockey pucks, a giveaway that the kitchen is likely using a special device that presses and consistently portions the mix prior to cooking. Falafel can be served as a finger food, typically dipped in or drizzled with tahini (ground sesame seed paste), or wrapped in pita or flatbread with a variety of toppings. Tzatziki, a yogurt-based sauce, is also popular to serve with falafel.
Once a recipe has been embraced by chefs around the world like falafel has been, it’s interesting to see how a neighborhood as culinarily diverse as Over-the-Rhine represents the dish. Let’s get to the table.
Dean’s Mediterranean Imports
It’s easy to shop at Dean’s for years, enjoying their wide selection of Middle Eastern groceries, without realizing that they also serve amazing food. If you frequent Findlay Market, start to incorporate Dean’s into your lunch ritual, because their kitchen puts out incredible dishes that not only fill you with nutritious ingredients, but also won’t put a strain on your wallet. For only $5, I was treated to my favorite falafel wrap in the city, punctuated by a mind-bogglingly complex and satisfying cup of curry couscous. The falafel is smashed to make room for all the components as this sandwich is packed with pickled vegetables and a minty slaw, a splash of hot sauce and, if you want, additional hummus, baba ganoush or feta. 108 W. Elder St., Over-the-Rhine, mediterranean-imports.com.
Helmed by Dan Wright and his wife Lana (of Senate, Abigail Street and Pontiac Bourbon & BBQ), with director of operations Mike Georgiton, Holiday Spirits and its in-house eatery Forty Thieves evoke the vibe of a dive bar and serve a menu of Middle Eastern street food. You can order your falafel either from a walk-up window facing Liberty Street or inside Holiday Spirits itself. Go for the falafel over hummus, which is worthy of an entire article dedicated to its deliciousness in its own right. The falafel — crisp with a pillowy center — is served with charred tomato and shishito peppers, red onion and pickled radish. Pair it with the tomato soup, some of the best I’ve ever had. This fast-casual restaurant is really hitting all the right notes in its opening number. Senate (1212 Vine St., senatepub.com) also offers a falafel variation via its sweet potato falafel tacos — fried fritters nestled in a tortilla and topped with Jerusalem salad, red chili sambal, lettuce, pickles and hummus. 1538 Race St., Over-the-Rhine, facebook.com/fortythievesgang.
Served in a supple housemade sesame pita, this lunch sandwich at chef Jose Salazar’s seasonally-minded kitchen is a free-for-all of flavor and texture. The falafel is smashed to make room for the lettuce, diced tomato, pickled onion and crumbled feta. Underneath it all is a slathering of lemon-tahini yogurt, freshly citric and indulgent. The cheese adds a welcome brininess and further refines each bite with its presence. A pickle spear is served on the side; your choice is whether it goes on the sandwich or directly into your mouth. 1401 Republic St., Over-the-Rhine, salazarcincinnati.com.
Revolution Rotisserie & Bar
Vegetarians officially have a reason to give Revolution Rotisserie & Bar — a restaurant that predominantly serves chicken — a try. The crispy, rustically processed falafel is offered either as a side dish, aka “falafel bites,” or sandwiched in a pita with arugula, red onion, cucumber and tzatziki. Chunks of chickpeas are visible in each bite and there is a heavy garlic kick in the savory fritters. The accompanying tzatziki sauce is herbaceous and creamy, which helps to complement the spice-forward dish. 1106 Race St., Over-the-Rhine, revolutionrotisserie.com.
More Falafel Finds
The Queen City Whip food truck in the Queen City Radio biergarten (222 W. 12th St., queencitywhip.com) offers a falafel sandwich on a toasted bun with tzatziki, lettuce, tomato, red onion and pickle; Pleasantry (118 W. 15th St., pleasantryotr.com) does a variation of falafel served with lentils, celery, hummus, buckwheat and fines herbes; another one of Dan and Lana Wright’s operations, Abigail Street (1214 Vine St., abigailstreet.com), offers crispy falafel with fire-roasted baba ganoush, mint, onion, tahini and chickpeas; and Aladdin’s Eatery + Lounge (1203 Main St., aladdins.com) has classic Middle Eastern falafel made with both chickpeas and fava beans served as an appetizers, in a rolled pita, on a salad or as part of a veggie combo.
Which neighborhood do you think has the best falafel? Send your recommendations to [email protected].