Falafel: 12 points. Nice and moist, not too dense, but with a funky, almost meaty taste that we couldn't quite identify.
Pita: 7 points. Fluffy and tender, on par with Pick A Pita's.
Toppings and Sauces: 6 points. Hummus, cucumber, and tahini, with no big lettuce bits or tomato chunks to drag it down; nothing too memorable, though.
Overall Satisfaction: 5 points. For a nondescript storefront in the falafel-saturated Union Square area, its sandwiches still manage to stand out.
Total: 30/50 points.
University Pita: 21 East 12th Street, New York NY 10003 (map); 212-924-4333
Falafel: 13 points. Nicely crisped, with a real chickpea flavor, but just a tad bready.
Pita: 7 points. Fluffy, fresh-tasting, and pretty awesome. (You can order a sandwich on their thick, chewy laffa flatbread, too.)
Toppings and Sauces: 7 points. We liked the hot sauce, in particular; just a tiny spoon-swipe lit up this sandwich. And the salad bar's unlimited, so pile those pickles on top.
Overall Satisfaction: 7 points. There's nothing we didn't like about this sandwich—but nothing that quite landed it in the Top 5, either.
Total: 34/50 points.
Olympic Pita: 58 West 38th Street, New York NY 10018 (map); 212-869-7482; olympicpita.com
Pick a Pita
Falafel: 14 points. Super-herby, well-salted, plenty moist, and with a nice crunch.
Pita: 7 points. Fresh-baked, and it shows; the pita is light and pillowy, but holds together just fine.
Toppings and Sauces: 7 points. Red slaw, tahini, hummus, even French fries, if you want them—plus an alluring green hot sauce.
Overall Satisfaction: 7 points. If we worked around the corner, we might eat lunch here every day.
Total: 35/50 points.
Pick a Pita: 601 8th Avenue, New York NY 10018 (map); 212-730-7482
King of Falafel and Shawarma
Falafel: 19 points. Freddie, the King of Falafel and Shawarma himself, will hand you a piece of falafel as you're in line. Chomp in. Egg-shaped, rather than round, these falafel have an even greater ratio of super-crunchy crust to moist, light innards. (He claims the secret is getting the oil hot enough, to get an immediate crust that locks in the moisture.) You taste garlic and red pepper first, but it's the alluring spice blend that really captures the attention—first cardamom and nutmeg, then cumin and paprika, then coriander and cardamom.
Pita: 5 points. It's pretty good store-bought pita—pliant, tasty—but it's a store-bought pita.
Toppings and Sauces: 9 points. Homemade hot sauce that adds complexity, not just spice; turnips that Freddie pickles himself; pickles flown in from Palestine; even the plopped-on tomato isn't bad, adding a bit of juice and lightness to a flavor explosion of a sandwich.
Overall Satisfaction: 7 points. The sandwich tends to fall apart quickly, and the pita isn't quite up to the level of the other ingredients. But we'd happily gobble down this falafel—or a chicken-and-rice plate, or a shawarma pita—from Freddie any day of the week. And though we don't have any points allotted to "personal charisma," it's worth the visit to Astoria just to experience this guy's charm.
Total: 40/50 points.
King of Falafel and Shawarma: 30th and Broadway, Astoria NY (map); thekingfalafel.com
Falafel: 16 points. Crisp. Beautifully, awesomely crisp, flat patties with tons of surface area and an interior that still stays moist. But with this much crust, the falafel innards get a little bit lost.
Pita: 7 points. Wheaty and nutty and fluffy.
Toppings and Sauces: 10 points. This is where Azuri excels. Sour-salty pickles, slightly spicy red cabbage, tabbouleh, hummus: it's creamy and spicy and salty and sweet. A playground of textures and flavors.
Overall Satisfaction: 8 points. It's an exciting sandwich, to be sure, one that we polished off quickly. At times, though, the falafel got lost in all the deliciousness. And shouldn't a falafel sandwich taste like, well, falafel?
Total: 41/50 points.
Azuri Cafe: 465 West 51st Street, New York NY 10019 (map); 212-262-2920; azuricafe.com
Falafel at Taïm
Simply the best falafel sandwich in the city. The green falafel, fresh from the fryer, is surprisingly light on the inside, with a beautiful brown, crispy shell. The pita is fluffy and the hummus is especially creamy. Bite for bite, we're happier eating Taïm's falafel than any other out there.