Inexpensive restaurants beckon powerfully in hard times. But fast food isn’t as cheap as it looks, once you add the ultimate price exacted by sugar, fat, and carbs. Middle Eastern food, with its emphasis on wholesome ingredients like grains, vegetables, and olive oil, can bridge the cost-health divide. It’s versatile, too, with abundant meat selections and extensive vegetarian and even vegan options like falafel and mujaddarah.
Recently I headed east on Washtenaw in search of Levantine cuisine and tried three places—one old, one new, and one reinvented--Haifa Falafel, Palm Palace, and Pita, Pita. All three reviews appeared together in one column in the Ann Arbor Observer April 2009 issue. For ease of use, I’m breaking them up into three blog posts.
Open since November in Glencoe Crossing shopping center, Haifa Falafel may be saddled with one of the most challenging locations on Washtenaw: it’s too far from the Eastern campus, it’s not close enough to U-M, and its facade faces away from the busy street. I feel for all marginal businesses now, but if this one doesn’t make it, it won’t be because of the food, which is surprisingly good, or the staff, who are friendly, charming, and skilled.
The family-owned shop is the work of Ali Usman, his two brothers, and a cousin. The chalkboard menu is short and smart—just eight sandwiches, four salads, and a half-dozen sides. Usman says that instead of trying to please too many tastes, they are trying to focus on doing a few things well. You order at the counter and eat in a spotless, sunlight-flooded, plainly furnished dining room. The Usmans are natives of Haifa, Israel, and the name explains what distinguishes their place from its Middle Eastern counterparts.
Compared to the familiar dense, hockey-puck-shaped falafel, Haifa-style falafel are lighter, smaller, and rounder—deep-fried golden orbs of ground chickpeas. What sets all of their sandwiches apart are the dozen or so condiments and sauces available to customize them. Options include chopped romaine lettuce, shredded cabbage, pickles, carrots, tomatoes, cucumber, and five sauces. There’s also a choice of breads—a standard pita split and stuffed, or a flour tortilla. When I asked Usman how the tortilla crept into a kitchen that was so big on authenticity, he explained they were trying to approximate laffah. According to cookbook writer Paula Wolfert, laffah is difficult to replicate outside the Middle East, since it requires a taboon, a tandoor-like oven. In spirit, if not in name, the Usmans’ tortilla does fit into the myriad of Middle Eastern flatbreads—and when I tried a shawarma wrapped in it, the effect was surprisingly good.
Order your falafel sandwich “Haifa-style” and it comes garnished with cabbage, lettuce, garlic sauce, pickles, and spicy, tomato-based Haifa sauce (it’s their mother’s recipe, and no, they won’t share it). The sandwich was tasty, interesting, and had a consistency that evolved—the falafel got a little squishy by mid-sandwich, almost like a warm chickpea puree with a bit of crunch to it. On my next visit, I had a messily delicious chicken shawarma with creamy garlic sauce and a tangy pickle on the aforementioned tortilla.
On both my visits, they were offering a $7 “Haifa special” that included a sandwich, drink, and a side dish. Among the sides, the house-made lentil soup is not to be missed. It’s like summer in a bowl—a perfectly textured potage of legumes and carrots with a big splash of fresh lemon flavor. Another side, the mujaddarah, is phenomenal. There are as many variations on this dish as there are cooks in the Middle East; here it is a subtly seasoned combination of brown lentils, rice, and cracked wheat served hot, carefully plated with a fried onion garnish.
I can’t judge how efficient Haifa Falafel is in dealing with high customer volumes, because when I was there the place was nearly empty. But I can say that the Usman family is putting out light and unusual fare, beyond what you’d expect at a self-serve sandwich shop. When I complimented Usman on this and asked if they’d had formal culinary training, he shrugged and said they’d worked here and there, but really his mother taught him everything. “We learned from the best,” he said.
(Glencoe Crossing) 734-4410
Mon.–Thurs. 10 a.m.–10 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 10 a.m.–11 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.–9 p.m.
Sandwiches $3.50–$5, salads $3.49–$4.99, soups $2.99, sides $1.99–$2.50, desserts $2.50