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March 14-21, 2007

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The Falafel Hut

Photograph by Carlie Statsky
Pita my heart: The Falafel Hut bridges Beirut and Beach Street.

Hut the Beach

The Falafel Hut brings the taste of Lebanon to Santa Cruz

By Selene Latigo

How easily we forget the cold. The first glorious day of spring weather seems to brainwash away any memory of shivering, wool-encased bodies and dark skies. My naked, pale toes squirmed with delight as I busted out my flip-flops from the back of the closet in preparation for our sunny Sunday bike ride along West Cliff. We weren't alone, as this welcoming warmth brought out throngs of beach seekers from the tip of Natural Bridges to the inner depths of the Boardwalk and beyond. However, in early March the population is a mixed bag, comprised less of the typical summertime tourists and more with locals and students. We rolled along, watching the hundreds of volleyball players and creative street personalities before tucking into the Falafel Hut for lunch, just as diversely occupied in patronage and décor as the scene outside.

The word "hut" is a fitting descriptor for this small, Mediterranean hole in the wall. Aptly adorned with beer advertisements, casually handwritten signs and leftover relics from previous owners, the Falafel Hut holds the quintessential seaside snack shack environment. The menu mirrors the expected mishmash of tourist-pleasing, kid-friendly items like chicken strips, milkshakes and fish and chips, but ignoring those things will bring into focus the authentic and well prepared Lebanese dishes that are the reason to stop here.

Dave's combination plate ($14.75) was the best way to sample a range of the featured specialties, and supplied a huge amount of food for the highest price tag on the menu. The pita bread arrived first and we were initially perplexed as to why they were still in the plastic bag of origin, despite the informative plug as to the brand used. But grabbing the bag revealed its purpose as a steam vessel, keeping the warmed, soft chewy pita hot and fresh for the duration of our meal. His main plate held a large, spread-out mound of hummus that was creamy and pure in its simplicity, completely smooth and topped with a scattering of tomato and paprika. Three preparations of beef and one of chicken were also showcased, all flavored distinctly and differently. The kibbe was cut into a square, cakelike slab, made up of ground beef and bulgur wheat lightly seasoned and then stuffed in the middle with onion and pine nuts. The kefta was sturdier; the ground beef was blended with parsley, marinated, rolled into a long tube and then grilled dark. Both the beef and chicken kebabs featured big chunks of meat, cooked until just the right consistency and subtly marinated to enhance the meat's natural flavors. A separate bowl of tabouli was the perfect side to freshen this robust, carnivorous selection. It primarily consisted of chopped parsley almost imperceptively dusted with bulgur wheat and small cubes of tomato. The bright, liberal use of lemon was in perfect ratio with the even amount of salt.

I chose the most expected and common thing possible at a place called the Falafel Hut: the falafel ($4.25). One entire pita was stuffed with four crisp and thick-crusted falafel balls that were fried cleanly, with none of the greasy aftertaste that can result from using dirty oil. The shreds of lettuce and tomato chunks were coated in tahini sauce that brought a deep, nutty element to the other ingredients. The whole thing burst at the seams and proceeded to fall apart, dripping down my hands and scattering in all directions. "You have to pick it up only once, never put it down and just stuff it in," advised Dave a bit too late.

We also ordered a small side of french fries ($1.90), since they seem to be a prerequisite for some reason at all falafel places. They were noted as "homemade" on the menu and were fried just as cleanly as the falafel. Although they were a bit pale, the potato interior was almost creamy and the small end slivers were like crunchy golden chips. A request for hot sauce procured a little bowl of a bright green and spicy condiment that tasted essentially of hot green peppers thrown in the blender. This thick sauce was another example of the purity in flavor and simple elements coming together gracefully here. Our station at the side counter gave us a direct viewing opportunity of the posters of Beirut and an article touting the city's similarities to the Santa Cruz coastline. The Falafel Hut has created a bridge for us between the two with their delicious food.

Falafel Hut

Address: 309 Beach St., Santa Cruz

Phone: 831.423.0567

Hours: 11am-7pm daily

Price Range: $2-$15.

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