The vegetarian plate at King of Falafel in San Francisco. (Kate Williams)
As much as enthusiastic fried chickpea eaters would like to disagree, the Bay Area is not a falafel town. (Okay, the Bay Area is also definitely not a town, so forgive the figure of speech.) There are dozens upon dozens of Middle Eastern delis slinging the round orbs of fried ground beans, but most are — at best — doing a mediocre job. Dip on over to Yelp and you’ll find each of these delis with at least a 3 ½ star rating, with reviewers equally split between those decrying dense, leaden falafels and those gleefully shouting: “Best. Falafel. Ever!!!!!”
So what is a Bay-bound falafel lover to do? While there is no one spot that churns out the absolute perfect falafel specimen, there are several restaurants and delis that get close — or at least they cover up their imperfections with delicious toppings. Our top picks are below.
The other option is, of course, to make falafel yourself. Stay tuned for a recipe.
Best All-Around Falafel: Sunrise Deli, Outer Sunset, San Francisco
Sunrise Deli has five Bay Area locations, but eaters in the know consider the Irving Street location to be the only spot worth visiting. I cringed a bit when I learned this fact — I live in the East Bay and its Berkeley location is, at best, 30 minutes closer to my apartment — but I dutifully hopped in the car and braved weekend traffic to get myself over to the Outer Sunset.
It was worth the drive. Sunset Deli fries the closest thing to a great falafel in the Bay. Each falafel is fried immediately after ordering and comes to the plate (or lavash wrap) ripping hot and greaseless. The burnished brown exterior is crazy-crisp, providing excellent contrast to the soft, crumbly interior. Sunrise isn’t shy with the spice; these falafel leave a pleasant, lingering burn long after demolishing the plate. My only quibble was that the centers verged on mushy. These falafel certainly aren’t dense, but I would have appreciated a bit more texture.
I ordered my falafel as part of a vegetarian plate, but next time, I’d just go for an order of a dozen and pop them one by one while walking them off in the park.
Biggest Bang for Your Buck: Kobani, University Avenue, Berkeley
Kobani is a brand-new Kurdish restaurant in central Berkeley. It replaced a long-empty storefront at the corner of University and Martin Luther King, and it has so far been a very welcome addition to the neighborhood. The restaurant serves a mean shawarma, but their falafels are also pretty decent.
They’re also huge. Each falafel is close to the size of my fist. This extra size leaves room for a bigger swath of crunchy outside bits, which I like. The interior verges on mushy and is a little too dense, but it is expertly seasoned and full of herbs and other goodness. Order the falafel plate and you’ll also be treated to an excellent, tangy tabouli salad. Add a (tiny) scoop of the super-hot hot sauce on every table, too.
1901 University Ave. [Map]
Berkeley, Ca 94704
Ph: (510) 529-4884
Hours: Sun-Thu, 11am-10pm; Fri-Sat, 11am-11pm
Price Range: $ (less than $8)
Best Sandwich: Truly Mediterranean, Mission District, San Francisco
I don’t typically go for falafel sandwiches — too often the excess sauce and hummus also wrapped up in the lavash quickly reduces once crisp falafels to weird, soggy mush. However, the item to order at Truly Mediterranean in the Mission is clearly the “falafel deluxe” sandwich. Everyone in the tiny shop at the corner of 16th and Valencia was ordering it. And everyone who saw my Instagram picture of my lunch that day agreed that this sandwich was the bomb.
It is, truly, a good sandwich. Weird, but good. Inside the gigantic lavash wrap is a mix of curiosities — room temperature fried potatoes, grilled eggplant, cucumber salad, onions, tahini and, of course, falafel. It either comes spicy, or not. The whole thing gets a quick stint on the hot grill, blistering and charring the exterior. The fried chickpea patties in question manage to hold on to their crispness for almost the entire time it takes to eat the super burrito-sized sandwich. They’ve got a hearty crust, which helps them hold up to the toppings, and a pleasant, if slightly dense, crumbly texture. Overall, however, I found the falafel (and potatoes and eggplant) underseasoned. Take your falafel deluxe home and season to taste.
Fluffiest Falafel: King of Falafel, Lower Pacific Heights, San Francisco [CLOSED]
King of Falafel probably isn’t going to be around in 2016, so the time is now to get over to the Lower Pacific Heights deli. The 40-year-old restaurant was given its marching orders back in April 2014, but has managed to hold onto its space at the corner of Bush and Divisadero through at least the end of the year.
They also make the fluffiest falafel I ate while compiling this guide. It’s quite a feat, actually, because King of Falafel’s namesake bites are simultaneously the greasiest and crispest as well. These falafel are, therefore, not for the finicky or the frier-shy. Rather, they’re satisfying in the same way that a giant plate of French fries can be at 2 a.m. Generously dip each falafel into the excellent, garlic-y hot sauce sitting at each table and say a quiet prayer to old San Francisco.
King of Falafel [CLOSED]
1801 Divisadero St. [Map]
San Francisco, CA 94115
Ph: (415) 931-5455
Hours: Mon-Fri, 9am-7pm; Sat, 10am-5pm
Facebook: King of Falafel
Price Range: $ ($8 to $10.50)
Best Toppings: Liba Falafel, Uptown Oakland
Liba Falafel in Uptown Oakland definitely falls in the new-school falafel camp. The popular food truck-turned-brick-and-mortar capitalized on the Bay’s lack of a topping-intensive falafel bar after New York chain Maoz closed its Berkeley operations. It’s a bright and shiny spot that makes you feel healthier and happier just by setting foot inside.
At Liba, there’s basically only one real menu choice to make — salad or sandwich — and then the fun part starts. If you go the sandwich route, you’ll be handed a warm pita filled with falafels. Choose salad, and you’ll get an empty bowl. Progress to the toppings bar next. It holds inside its little bins a truly astounding number of salads, pickles, sauces, cheeses and nuts with which to deck out your lunch. There are baby greens for salad eaters, of course, but the real way to build a quality meal is to go heavy on the prepared items, like the excellent eggplant salad and beet hummus.
The falafel themselves are somewhat of an afterthought. If you want freshly fried falafel, you’ll want to order the sandwich — salad eaters get to pluck their falafels from a bin on the toppings bar. Liba’s falafels have a high ratio of crisp exterior to crumbly, moist interior. They’re not mushy, but come off a bit dense. Serviceable.
Best Falafel-Topped Salad: Ba-Bite, Piedmont Avenue, Oakland
Also in the new-school camp is recently-opened Ba-Bite on Oakland’s Piedmont Avenue. Much of this counter-service restaurant’s menu seems inspired by the ever-popular Yotam Ottolenghi cookbook, “Jerusalem” — not a bad thing. You can easily make a meal out of a hummus plate and a couple of salads, and I wouldn’t discourage it.
Ba-Bite’s falafel are an earnest attempt at the form. They’re made with a combination of chickpeas and fava beans, which I can appreciate for the complexity of flavor. Ba-Bite also knows its way around a salt cellar — the falafel are perfectly seasoned. However, at each visit, I’ve found their falafel to be far too soft. The exterior needs more crunch; the interior needs more crumble. The requisite tahini drizzle does not help. On the other hand, if you’re looking to bulk up one of their excellent salads with some vegetarian protein, the falafel is not a bad way to go. Order hummus on the side.