Notice something different? This week our international foods expert Gene Lee will start covering his beat in a different way. Instead of writing starred reviews, Gene will instead use this space to explore specific examples in greater depth. This change will give Gene the opportunity to better scour the metro area – from mom-and-pop storefronts to upscale restaurants – as he searches out those global dishes that make Atlanta such an interesting place to explore. Here’s his first report on the sublime falafel at Mediterranean Bakery and Sandwich. We hope you enjoy this change.
There are many dishes to like at Mediterranean Bakery and Sandwich, and there are certainly a lot to try. The takeout-grocery store’s deeply flavored chicken shawarma sandwich ($5.99) tightly rolled in lavash (flat bread) that has been smeared with a pungent white garlic sauce is easily a favorite of mine. And the grilled lamb kabob halabi platter ($9.99) served on a bed of loose, buttery rice with two sides satisfies a meat-and-three craving and is not as heavy as it sounds. But it’s the siren call of the bakery’s falafel that makes me pass by some of my regular Buford Highway spots.
The falafel is one of the most democratic of foods. Restaurants, street vendors and even gas stations all over the Middle East hawk this cheap snack, which is as omnipresent as hot dogs are in America. Its origin is hazy, but the generally accepted notion is that Egypt begat the falafel. High in protein and fiber, falafel is commonly made with ground chickpeas or fava beans, and in some cases — like the Lebanese version at Mediterranean Bakery — it is a combination of both.
The restaurant’s falafel cooking station — a beguiling and boxy gas-powered contraption fitted with a wide wok-like pan on top — sits in plain view alongside shawarma trompos (upright rotisseries) of beef and chicken. Perched at a nearby table, I watch Ramez Traboulsi, one of the restaurant’s falafel makers, scoop up the grainy mixture and shape small spheres with an aleb falafel (another intriguing device that resembles an ice cream scoop) and by utilizing rapid whittling motions with a spoon. One by one, Traboulsi then gently lays formed falafel balls into heated canola oil, flips them once after a few minutes, and then after a few minutes more removes and rests them against a circular rack attached to the cooking pan.
You can order falafel individually as a side item (50 cents), in a sandwich ($5.49) wrapped with the restaurant’s toothsome lavash , or deconstructed into a platter ($6.99) with your choice of two sides (hummus, stuffed grape leaves or a selection of Mediterranean salads to name a few). A thick, tangy tahini (sesame) dipping sauce always comes with any falafel order; it’s nutty, kefir-like similarities induce an inner desire to drink it on its own like the fermented milk.
In appearance, falafels are a light shade of golden brown and are studded with off-white flecks of fava bean. A batch right out of the fryer holds a crunchy exterior and a hot steamy inside, which is neither too gooey nor too dry. If it sits too long waiting to be served, it can lose its crunch.
“My falafel is not a special recipe,” owner Bassam Monzer tells me. “It’s a pretty typical Lebanese recipe made with 12 ingredients and spices.” Monzer is secretive about the exact ingredients, but I taste the usual musky suspects of cumin and coriander along with a touch of heat from finely ground pepper.
Monzer’s falafel recipe may not be a special, but it tastes pretty good to me.MEDITERRANEAN BAKERY AND SANDWICH 3362 Chamblee-Tucker Road, Atlanta ; 770-220-0706 Food: casual and healthy Mediterranean dishes with a Lebanese twist Service: Order at the counter and clear your own table when you’re done. Vegetarian selections: a few salads, falafel platter or sandwich and a huge meze platter with the usual Mediterranean dishes (grape leaves, baba ghanoush , hummus) Price range: $ Credit cards: Discover, MasterCard, Visa Hours: 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturdays, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Sundays Children: yes Parking: in lot Reservations: no Wheelchair access: yes Smoking: no Noise level: moderate Patio: yes Takeout: yes