There are so many great places to find falafel all over New York City; we will be exploring the best of the best here at Serious Eats. And we're starting the search in Queens. Every place had their own little twist on the classic Middle Eastern sandwich of fried chickpea fritters topped with tahini sauce and stuffed into pita bread. From Kew Gardens Hills for kosher-style, to Forest Hills for a Lebanese version, to Astoria for the King of Falafel cart, I traveled Queens far and wide for falafel, and loved every bite.
Naomi's Kosher Pizza & Israel Falafel
Naomi's, a Glatt Kosher pizza and falafel place, was the first stop, and the furthest afield. The sandwich was served simply: five falafel balls, tahini, and lettuce, in a whole store-bought pita. The fun part was the salad bar, where you can add your own hot sauce, pink pickled turnips and cabbage, and even sauerkraut (though I'm not really sure why). The hot sauce, a beautiful, thick, bright red puree of chiles, was fresh tasting and spicy, with a hint of cumin. The falafel were not made to order for my sandwich, but had just come out of the fryer and were still hot; crisp and brown on the outside, with a much paler middle, soft and somewhat mushy. Not strongly seasoned, but crunchy and fresh. A good start for the falafel tour.
Falafel Sandwich: $3.50
Highlights: Fresh, flavorful hot sauce; self-serve mini toppings bar
6828 Main Street, Kew Gardens Hills, Queens (map) (718) 520-8754
Another Glatt Kosher place, but Pahal Zan specializes in meat, not dairy meals. Skewers, shawarma, sandwiches, and, of course, falafel. The man behind the counter in this tiny shop under the LIRR tracks was very friendly as he filled my sandwich first with any of the salads I wanted (Morrocan carrots, coleslaw, red cabbage, Israeli salad, pickles, tabouleh, and more). I chose as many as could fit inside the pita, plus extra Israeli pickles (a personal favorite). The falafel here, four to a sandwich, were incredibly crisp, the outer layer encrusted with sesame seeds and spices, and extremely flavorful. The inside steaming and soft, straight from the fryer. The hot sauce here was a thick green herb puree with red chile flakes throughout, highly spiced and spicy.
Falafel Sandwich: $6.99
Highlights: Extra crisp and flavorful falafel, many topping options.
106-12 Continental Avenue, Forest Hills, Queens (map) (718) 793-7177
Wafa's, a Lebanese restaurant, is another tiny storefront, a small kitchen filled with great-looking food. The falafel sandwich here is made with flat, thin pita, rolled around the fillings. I watched as the owner, Wafa herself, fried my falafel for the sandwich. The falafel is then placed on the pita, and topped with raw onion slices, strips of pink pickled turnips, pickle strips, lettuce, tomato, tahini, and a thin red hot sauce. The falafel was a bright green, fresh tasting with a hint of sweetness. Although fried fresh, they were no longer crisp, as they are smashed at the bottom of the wrap. Each bite had a great combination of soft and green falafel, sour pickles, crisp and sharp onions, creamy tahini, and a touch of spice. This place definitely deserves another trip for the salads and cheese, spinach and meat pies, which looked great.
Falafel Sandwich: $5
Highlights: Green falafel, good flavor and texture combination
96-08 72nd Avenue, Forest Hills, Queens (map) (718) 263-2757
Jerusalem Pita House
The great yellow awning says Pita Hot, the menu says Jerusalem Pita, but whatever it's called, they make a mean falafel sandwich. The man behind the counter offered me a taste of their hummus as I waited for my sandwich. It was creamy and smooth, but I did not get distracted from the task at hand. My small sandwich was served in warm pita, these falafel were again, green, and again, smashed at the bottom of the pita.
I was warned that the homemade hot sauce was very spicy, and it was, but I could handle it. Another thick and red puree, it added a nice flavor to the sandwich. The only other additions were chopped lettuce and tomatoes, and tahini. Simple but delicious, the falafel was seasoned perfectly, fresh and bright, and the warm pita with the cool tahini and crisp lettuce made for a classic falafel experience.
Falafel Sandwich: $4.00
Highlights: Perfectly seasoned falafel, well-composed sandwich
25-15 30th Avenue, Astoria, Queens (map) (718) 932-8282
King of Falafel & Shawarma
The last stop on the falafel tour, King of Falafel is a popular street cart, a finalist in the 2009 Vendy Awards. This falafel was the cheapest, the biggest, and pretty close to perfect. The falafel is not shaped into balls; they are longer and thinner, like a rounded rectangle. I was given one to taste as I waited for my sandwich, and it was so crisp and hot, seasoned, spiced and seeded, a nice dark brown.
The pita bread, a thick, pocket-less pita, was thrown on the grill to heat; the extra-large falafel were placed on top, then handfuls of lettuce, tomato, raw white onions tossed with sumac, slices of pickle, strips of pickled turnips, then finally squirts of tahini and hot sauce. The warm, thick pita was soft; the falafel crisp; the salty, vinegary pickles and sweet and sharp onions again added texture and flavor; the lettuce was fresh and crunchy lettuce; and the sauces made for the perfect bite.
Falafel Sandwich: $3
Highlights: Cheap and filling, extra-crisp falafel
30th Street and Broadway, Astoria (map) (718) 838-8029
Is there a clear falafel winner? Not exactly. They all held their own. Between the two Glatt Kosher, Israeli-style sandwiches, I give Pahal Zan the edge over Naomi's. Between the two green, Middle Eastern falafels, it's too close to call: Jerusalem Pita wins for warmth, flavor and freshness, but Wafa's had a perfect flavor and texture combo. But the King of Falafel was in a class of its own. The King had the best of both styles: crisp falafel, great toppings, good flavor, and, don't forget, it was the least expensive. Where else do you find your favorite falafel?