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May 10-17, 2006

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Michael Mounir from the Falafel House

Photograph by Stephen Laufer
Order's Up: Falafel House owner Michael Mounir strikes a pose with a veggie combo plate.

House of Flavor

Revisiting a downtown favorite with a Middle Eastern flair

By Selene Latigo

There are certain spots around town that I forget exist, not at all due to lack of appeal or quality, but more because my eyes are so used to seeing their familiar signs that they skip right over them. I hadn't visited the Falafel House in a long time, simply because that little falafel emblem hanging above the door blends into the landscape so perfectly. I am really glad that Dave got a hankering for falafel the other day while we were downtown, which led to a welcome reminder of this flavorful local favorite.

The split room, counter-service restaurant is nothing fancy. Dated and faded posters of Syrian scenes adorn the high walls, naked wooden tables and chairs are scattered about and plastic cafeteria-style trays are slid out on the counter when your number is called. The only other decorative embellishments are the three arched wall cutouts with old glass lanterns hanging from the tops and a few plastic plants to add some color.

Although we arrived early in the evening, there was already a steady stream of customers flowing in and out. The large chalkboard menu out front has clearly written descriptions corresponding to oddly numbered prices, such as $2.87, $4.23 and $5.59. We assumed this was done to even out the totals after tax, yet after paying our bill, the humble grand total still wasn't a round number. Whatever the reasoning, these figures made us smile at the quirkiness and at the incredible value with nothing priced above $7.81.

We ordered our selections and found a window-lit table in the second room while waiting for our magic number. After just a few minutes, we had our moderately portioned plates at the table, and after asking for a bottle of some of their very effective hot sauce from behind the counter, dug into our shared dishes.

The basket of fresh pita bread that came with the veggie combo plate ($6.10) was a vital accompaniment for the variety of toppings showcased. All of the flavors were intense and concentrated, making the smallish-sized scoops deliver in a huge way. There was thick and sesame-strong hummus, even and well seasoned. In the next compartment on the plate was an equally balanced babaghanouj with just the right levels of smoke, creamy garlic and sweet, nutty roasted eggplant, drizzled with olive oil. To counter these two dips texturally came a pile of bright tabouli with a large ratio of buoyant and coarse parsley to a scattering of bulgur wheat and tiny cubes of tomato, all infused with pure lemon zing. There was also a little salad of romaine and cucumber slices topped with three half moons of darkly fried falafel. These were moist and delicately spiced inside with a crisp outer shell, all covered with the tangy and thick tahini sauce. A small posting by the front menu states that this tahini sauce is made with yogurt, but a vegan version is available if desired.

We also chose the gyro sandwich special ($7.34), a combination item including a soda and golden french fries with earthy strips of potato skin on the edges. The round of pita held an even amount of romaine, tomato, red onion, tahini sauce, and thin carvings of tender, well-seasoned lamb.

At the last minute we decided to try a cheese and spinach pie ($2.40) that was a big calzone-shaped pocket of light, sesame-studded bread dough, filled with rich spinach and just a hint of soft cheese. The simplicity of this pie was a great base for some extra smears of the various dips and hot sauce.

Our breath burned with garlic, a good sign after any Middle Eastern meal. The Falafel House, already well loved by Metro Santa Cruz readers (2006 Gold), is a perfect choice to appease any kebab, shawarma or falafel craving. They also offer some less typical fare adapted to fit the Middle Eastern genre such as chicken fajitas, pepper steak and the Mediterranean turkey burger. With a pedestrian-friendly location, welcoming atmosphere and fresh, bold tastes, there's reason enough to remember this downtown classic.

The Falafel House

Address: 113 Walnut Ave., Santa Cruz

Phone: 831.459.9770

Hours: 11am-9pm Sun-Thu, 11am-10pm Fri-Sat

Cuisine: Middle Eastern

Price Range: $2-$8.

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