As an exchange student in Greece, I ate falafel every night of my 17th summer. After dancing until dawn in packed outdoor discos, my host sister and I would stumble to the snack stands. While Despina would gobble up scary pork-entrails souvlaki, I opted for the Lebanese-owned stalls selling falafel sandwiches. Oven-mitt-sized pita breads were filled with dangerously hot, crisp falafel, cucumbers, tomatoes, a vast array of pickled things (my favorite being onion-and-beet salad) and a velvety hummus that inevitably dribbled onto the sidewalk. With such fond memories, sometimes I need a deep-fried, garlic-garbanzo-fava bean fix real bad.
Here's what Portland has to offer.
Nicholas Restaurant (318 SE Grand Ave., 235-5123) The best thing about the falafel here is the warm, chewy bread used to wrap the only slightly crunchy pieces. The sandwich comes with tahini sauce, for a bit more you can get a side of hummus and a salad ($7.25). At the risk of being smothered with puffy bread by the city's Nicholas fan club, I step forward to say that I do not like the restaurant's hummus—it tastes too much of tahini. There, I've said it (gulp).
Karam Lebanese Cuisine (316 SW Stark St., 223-0830) Crunchy, grainy falafel ($5-$5.50) served piping-hot in fresh bread beset with bitter iceberg lettuce, a little bit of parsley and a very drippy tahini sauce. The dish was OK, but not "it." Karam's shwarma—warm, crunchy lamb bits on cumin-fortified hummus—was astoundingly tasty, though. But I digress.
Al-Amir (223 SW Stark St., 274-0010) The ratio of ho-hum lettuce to overly salted falafel ($5) at this Lebanese house was way too high, and the dish didn't boast quite enough creamy sesame sauce to moisten it. Instead, I found myself devouring the baba ghanouj—which was quite lovely, but not the point.
Fat Kitty Falafel (Southeast Division Street and 21st Avenue, 236-3951) Four dollars buy you finely textured falafel balls fried right before your eyes, a choice of sauces (try the delicious cilantro- and garlic-laced yogurt) and a rambling succession of stories by Mr. Fat Kitty (owner Al Herre). Amusing and delicious, but alas, the cart is exposed to the Northwest's dreadful clammy elements. I eagerly await the construction of a warm and toasty Fat Kitty Falafel Palace.
Hoda's (3401 SE Belmont St., 236-8325) This Southeast joint's "super falafel sandwich with hummus" ($4.75) has lots of Romaine lettuce in it and a creamy hummus with a wicked afterglow of garlic. But the falafel are crumbly, not at all crunchy, making them not so super after all.
Ya Hala (8005 SE Stark St., 256-4484) Deeply green with parsley, Ya Hala's audibly crunchy chickpea-and-fava bean orbs are wrapped in a nicely toasted pita with lots of chopped parsley and gobs of citrus-y hummus ($4.75). As for the pickled beets? A side dish of salty pickled carrots and cucumbers ($2.25) suffices nicely. I can almost hear the strains of Greek pop music as I eat—oh wait, that's Lebanese pop on the stereo. At any rate, I'm transported.