By: A&E Editors Tammy Tseng and Peter Xu
Tucked away in oft-missed Gaslight Square located across the street from the Fremont Hub is the little restaurant Falafel, Etc. As the name implies, Falafel, Etc. does indeed serve falafels and an et cetera of other Middle Eastern foods. A restaurant surely missed unless actively sought for, Falafel, Etc. deserves larger recognition than its hermit location affords it. For delicious falafels, one could certainly do much worse than Falafel, Etc.
Falafel, Etc.’s menu, though less expansive than that of most other full-scale restaurants, delivers delicious, authentic Middle Eastern flavors in a modest selection of traditional dishes. The falafel balls, the restaurant’s eponymous signature dish, are fried to a perfect crisp on the outside and bursting in rich chickpea flavor with every bite – Falafel, Etc. does a commendable job of living up to its name. The falafel sandwich is just as palatable, encased in a tender pita bread shell and garnished with fresh vegetables, though adding sauce is a must, as the sandwich comes without hummus or any other dressing and can seem dry after a few bites.
While the falafels are the shining stars of the restaurant, the other offerings should not be simply cast aside. Various chicken and lamb sandwiches and plates can be had that are equally satisfying. The lamb shawarma plate comes with a generous helping of lamb shawarma, shavings of lamb carved from a grilled spit of lamb, along with a Greek salad and a large serving of hummus, a dip made from mashed chickpeas. The plate also came with two halves of pita bread. The lamb shawarma comes dressed in a oil-spice mixture that added flavor and moistened the lamb. The lamb itself is a little touch-and-go with pieces at the top of the pile drier and less flavorful than the pieces at the bottom, which have had a chance to really soak up the oil. However, when all mixed together, the difference is indiscernible. The meat is mildly seasoned, allowing the distinct flavor of lamb to shine through although it could be more pronounced.The hummus is creamy and mild tasting, with earthy flavors that go well with the lamb. The Greek salad however, leaves a little wanting. Flavorless iceberg lettuce makes up the base of the salad, which is then topped with cucumbers, red bell peppers, feta cheese, and two small olives. The entire salad is dressed in a sour vinegar-like dressing that can overpower the other flavors in the salad. With the pita bread, one could combine all the ingredients of the plate into a lamb shawarma sandwich, which allows all the tastes and textures to come together nicely. A little dryness is easily fixed by a trip to the free sauce bar for some tzatziki sauce, a yogurt-based sauce, and some tahini, a sesame-based sauce, which combine nicely with the lamb.
Besides entrees, Falafel, Etc. also offers a variety of side dishes. The baba ghannouj, baked eggplant blended with tomatoes and onions, is smoky and flavorful and comes with a side of pita. The texture is creamy, but with noticeable strands of eggplant. It comes topped with pine nuts and olive oil, adding additional flavors and crunch.
Make sure you leave room for dessert here – Falafel, Etc. strikes a masterful culinary balance in selections that are flavorful and rich yet still light and simple. Their baklava, a traditional Middle Eastern dessert made of filo pastry layers filled with chopped nuts and covered in honey or syrup, walks a fine line between savory and sweet – neither the nuts nor the honey overpower the other. The pastry layers are cut so thin they seem to melt in your mouth, while the juxtaposition of pistachios and pecans drizzled with just the right amount of honey makes for a delicious amalgam of tastes. Though the dessert is incredibly sticky – eat with a fork, never with fingers – it’s a side effect common to all baklava and in no way detracts from your tastebuds’ experience. All in all, Falafel, Etc.’s version of baklava is a winning rendition that every new diner must try.
The prices at Falafel, Etc. are more than fair for the portion sizes given. The menu consists of two main types of entrees, sandwiches and plates. The sandwiches cost $6.95, with the exception of the lamb shawarma sandwich, which is $7.50. Each sandwich is a large pita bread stuffed with your filling of choice along with all sorts of vegetable goodies such as tomatoes and cucumbers. While there are certainly burgers, burritos, and other equally hearty options to be had at a lower price point, the sandwiches at Falafel, etc. are healthy choices full of rich and exotic flavors well worth the couple dollars more.
For those looking for a sit-down meal or just not in the mood for a sandwich, the plate options are the way to go. More expensive than their pita-enveloped brethren, the plates come with the main course, pita bread, and one or two sides, depending on the plate. The plate options offer greater variety with meat choices such as kafta (ground seasoned lamb), lamb, and chicken kabobs and vegetarian selections like the hummus plate and the mudammas fool plate (mudammas fool is a dish made of mashed fava beans). The cost of plates ranges from $9.50 for the mudammas fool plate to $12.95 for the lamb kabob plate. The prices are a bargain considering the amount of food served is enough for both dinner one day and lunch the next.
The sides and desserts at Falafel, Etc. are reasonably priced. All sides are a few dollars, the most expensive options (falafels, hummus, and baba ghannouj) topping off at $4.00. The quantity is enough to share as an appetizer and is well worth it for those wanting to try something new. Desserts are similarly priced, ranging from $1.75 for baklava or torteet (a chocolate cookie) to $3.50 for knafeh (a Levantine dessert made of cheese, pastry, and sugar syrup). Also, if you order a plate, be sure to check in on Yelp and show it to the cashier when ordering to receive a free plate of baklava.
NOTE: When looking at the menu online, be aware that the menu on Yelp has old prices that have not been updated. The correct prices can be found on falafeletc.com.
While often overlooked, the quality of a restaurant’s amenities can play a large factor in the dining experience. The bathroom door shouldn’t lead to the darkest depths of Davy Jones’ Locker, and no man should have to suffer the cruel deception of a skimpy “free” salad bar where wilting and discolored lettuce goes to die. Fortunately, Falafel, Etc. avoids most pitfalls with only a little to be improved.
The meals are large at Falafel, Etc. and leftovers are expected. Takeout boxes are readily given at request at the ordering counter and your leftovers will go on to be eaten another day.
The restaurant’s bathroom is a modest affair. There’s one bathroom per gender, each accommodating one person at a time. The bathroom is clean and dry; no rounds of bathroom hopskotch need be played avoiding suspicious puddles and wet spots on the floor. Paper towels as well as the toilet paper are in abundant supply and the soap dispenser is fairly full. The only downside to the bathroom is a faint but lingering ammonia odor that could easily have been masked with an air freshener. All in all, not bad.
Falafel, Etc.’s exterior is nothing to write home about – a plain cream exterior camouflages the restaurant amidst a slew of similarly designed shops and fails to easily attract any potential customer’s wandering eye. The lighting is dim and the ordering counter, the first thing you see as you walk in, stretches across the entire length of the entrance area in scratched stainless steel. Though the inside dining area is clean and neat, with dark wooden tables, marbled tiling, and minimal Middle Eastern decorations, the interior of the restaurant generally gives off a modest yet distinctly plain Jane air – a place to conveniently eat your food, but not an environment that adds another dimension to the culinary experience.
Yet while the initial impression is underwhelming, once you step outside the patio door, Falafel Etc. transforms itself into an entirely different world. Diners are greeted by an exquisite fountain in the center of the airy room, punctuated by the lush greenery that dots the terra cotta-lined cream walls, and the overall effect is one of being transported back in time to a open-air ancient Greek dining room. The breeze and the sunlight drift lazily through the latticed gate door that leads back outside to the front of the restaurant, while the drapings overhead add to the tranquil atmosphere and make the patio area the perfect place to enjoy a refreshing meal. Indeed, during our visit, the majority of patrons chose to sit outside – only when all the tables were filled did anyone sit indoors. The restaurant was filled with light chatter when we ate, adding to the pleasant ambiance. For the best quality eating experience, we recommend that you head to the patio area whenever the weather permits.
Falafel, Etc. is not a full-service restaurant; instead, food is ordered at the entrance counter and brought by staff to the tables thanks to numbered placards. The self-service condiments bar offers a variety of sauces as well as utensils and napkins – it consists of six plastic containers surrounded by ice holding various toppings and sauces for you to enjoy with your meal. The six condiments are yellow chilis, spiced onions, tzatziki sauce, tahini sauce, and sandwich pickles. Small plastic containers are available to hold the condiments; however, a sign at the sauce bar tells patrons to ask for them at the ordering counter. No reason is made as to why the restaurant doesn’t just leave the containers available at the sauce bar – perhaps they are worried of an epidemic of grand theft sauce. Either way, it is rather inconvenient. However during our visit, one of the restaurant staff noticed we were perusing the sauce bar and brought us containers without us having to ask – that was thoughtful.
The restaurant staff were extremely polite and welcoming and stopped by our table several times throughout the evening to ask if there was anything we needed. While it was a little inconvenient to be getting up throughout the dinner to stop by the condiments bar for dressings and utensils, overall, the restaurant’s staff are laudable in their openness and friendliness to patrons and the self-service aspect made for faster and more efficient delivery of food.
Photo Courtesy: www.yelp.com