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Photographs by Robyn Lee

Lately, I've had falafel on the brain. With good reason, I might add. There are few things on this earth more seriously delicious than crisp, nutty, and well-seasoned balls of fried chickpea. In the last couple of months, I have eaten falafel all over New York and have come to one inescapable conclusion: Union Square has become the epicenter of falafel activity in this berg.

You may be surprised at that claim. When I first came to New York after college (I don't even want to tell you when that was, but I will tell you that Boss Tweed was no longer in power), Greenwich Village was where it was at in New York, falafel-wise. There, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and many other stoned folkies satisfied their munchy cravings at Mamoun's, which opened in 1971. And yes, Brooklyn has no shortage of fine falafelaterias (I know it's not a word), especially in Borough Park and Midwood. But now between Rainbow Falafel & Shawarma, Maoz, Pita Joe, and the Moshe's Falafel truck parked at 18th and Fifth Avenue, there's a fried ball of chickpea deliciousness just about anywhere you wander in the Union Square area.

So whose falafel in Union Square reigns supreme? One snowy day the Serious Eaters endeavored to find out.

Maoz

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I know that Maoz is a Europe-based chain, but damn, the falafel there is mighty tasty. Its balls of crunchy fried goodness are helped immeasurably by the excellent whole wheat pita, cilantro sauce, and Maoz's fine Middle Eastern salad bar. I'm partial to the carrot salad and the pickled baby eggplant. Using the quality of the falafel balls, pita, and fixins' as yardsticks of falafel excellence, Maoz is top falafel in Union Square.

38 Union Square East, New York NY 10003 (b/n 16th Street and 17th Street; map); 212-260-1988; maozusa.com; Cost: $4.95 for a falafel sandwich (includes salad bar toppings); Grade: A-

Pita Joe

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Pita Joe fancies themselves as the schnitzel sandwich kings (its tagline is, "Have you had your schnitzel today?"), but I think the falafel sandwich is the tastiest item they sell. The falafel balls are made with coarsely ground organic chickpeas (but are they local?) and a secret spice mix owner Erez Cohen refused to divulge. Interestingly, where Pita Joe's falls short is its pedestrian organic housemade pita. You figure if you put "pita" in your name, the pita would be special and distinctive. Pita Joe's pita tastes and looks store-bought. Props also to Pita Joe's for its killer lemonade. The raspberry lemonade is the best, and the mango and mint varieties aren't far behind.

2 West 14th Street, New York NY 10011 (SW corner of Fifth Avenue; map); 212-627-7877; pitajoe.com; Cost: $6.35 for a whole pita sandwich; Grade: B+

Rainbow Falafel & Shawarma

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Rainbow Falafel & Shawarma is the classic, ungentrified Union Square falafel joint. It's just a storefront with no seating, but the family-run operation turns out an ultra-crisp, ultra-dark falafel, made according to the printed menu of chickpeas, parsley, fresh garlic, onions, and spices. The pita is unremarkable, and though the chicken shawarma looks mighty inviting on its spit, it was bone-dry the last time I tried it.

26 East 17th Street, New York, NY 10003 (b/n Fifth Avenue and Broadway; map); 212-691-8641; Cost: $3.50 for a falafel sandwich; Grade: B

Moshe's Falafel

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Midtown falafel lovers might know the Moshe's Falafel truck from its 45th Street and Sixth Avenue location but their second falafel truck started parking in Union Square six months ago. The folks are super-friendly (the man in charge gave a massive free falafel ball to Robyn while we waited for our sandwich to be made), and the aforementioned falafel balls are as big as a cannonball, but alas, the golden brown balls were bland and slightly mealy. Nonetheless, I will always have a soft spot in my heart for a Moshe's falafel sandwich.

Fifth Avenue and 17th Street (NE Corner), New York, NY 10003 (map); Cost: $4.95 for an oversized sandwich; Grade: B-

Final Thoughts

If Maoz represents the best the Union Square neighborhood has to offer falafel-wise, the next question is how Maoz would fare in a falafel smackdown with the West Village's Taim, or the Financial Distict's Alfanoose, or Hell's Kitchen's Azuri Cafe. Now that's falafel for thought. What say you, Serious Eaters?

UPDATE: The Best Falafel Sandwich in New York City »

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