Thursday, July 17, 2008

IEM Session #4- The Coldest Winter I Ever Spent Was a Falafel in San Francisco

If you don't know what this nonsense is all about, you had better read the intro .

I told you I’d be back in July! After the response I received about the taco session from the 12 dorks on the Internet, I was really excited to keep the momentum going and do another session ASAP. For reasons you will soon understand, this session was a lot more work than the last one and not as fun, so I hope you will appreciate my labors. I do it all for you.

Unlike tacos, and similar to fish and chips, falafel is not available early in the morning or late at night around these parts. In the East Bay, few falafel joints are open before 11am or after 9pm, so I reckon I had only 10 or 11 eating hours for this session. Before you question the difficulty of eating 8 falafels (8 items= the official IEM minimum) when I’d previously eaten 36 tacos in one day, understand that the smallest falafel eaten was heavier than 4 average-sized taqueria tacos. This was not a session for novices.

This was a life-changing session that I almost wish I hadn't embarked upon. With fish and chips, the food sickened me like I couldn't have imagined, and I haven't eaten them since IEM #2, more than a year ago. However, I know in my heart of hearts that I still really like fish and chips, in general. The problem was strictly with me eating a ton of them in one day. I experienced what can only be called a grease and batter overdose that day, yet I fully expect to resume eating fish and chips on a semi-regular basis in the near future. But after eating so many falafels and tasting what they are really all about (at least in the Bay Area), I have re-assessed my opinion of them as a food. I thought I loved falafel, but after this session, I’m not so sure. I doubt I’ll be eating many falafels in the future if this session is indicative of what I can expect from them. Perhaps somebody in the know will tell me that most falafels around here are an affront to God and should not be considered as a yardstick by which to measure falafels as a whole. But if some helpful Tom, Abdul, or Shlomo doesn't make his presence known soon, I’m guessing I’ll restrict my falafel-eating to once-in-a-blue-moon occasions and only at places where I’m sure I’ll get what I’m expecting.

Eating Day: June 28, 2008

1. BONGO BURGER- 2505 Dwight Way (@ Telegraph), Berkeley- 10:18am- Full Falafel-$5.75

Bongo Burger is just off of the main drag on Telegraph Ave. right near UC Berkeley. This an area I don’t like to visit too frequently. Naturally, it’s always packed with college kids. Everytime I’m on that street and I see all of the fresh-faced youths wandering around with their book bags, I get depressed. They just remind me of how much I squandered my youth. These kids think they know everything. Maybe they do. They got into Berkeley, after all. They know what they want to do when they grow up. At their age, I was killing time as a liberal arts major at a crummy Midwestern technical/agricultural university and didn't want to do anything except watch TV, play in a band, and buy records. I would bandy about career ideas, but I wasn't really interested in doing any of those things. I once had a college adviser give me a test that asked me what I would do with my time if I won the lottery and I didn't have to work. I think it was supposed to determine my true interests to help me chart a career path. I'm pretty certain that I actually wrote down “nothing,” which was the truth, especially back then. The counselor made me come up with a second choice. I can’t remember what I told him, but since it wasn't my real answer, the test was pointless, so it’s no surprise that I’m stuck in a dead-end cubicle job that I keep only for the paycheck and the benefits. If there are any UCB kids on Telegraph that are aimless in their career plans, they better quickly figure out what they’re going to do and stick with it, or they’re gonna end up like me. And I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy.

The full falafel at Bongo has 4 big falafel patty/balls smashed down inside a pita along with shredded lettuce, tomato, sliced onion, and copious amounts of tahini sauce. The falafel was nice and spicy and was cooked to order. They had the correct balance of pepper, cumin, parsley, and garlic, but there were some problems. It’s true that I’ve never been to the Middle East. I don’t know what AUTHENTIC falafel is supposed to taste like, but I know how I like it. I like the balls fried crispy on the outside with an al dente inside, not unlike the texture of cooked couscous. Bongo's falafels were pretty crunchy on the outside, but they were quite mushy within. They weren't so mushy that I didn't enjoy the sandwich, but an extra minute in really hot oil could have really helped these balls. Also, the pita was paper thin. With oversized falafel patties, the vegetables, and the massive amounts of sauce inside, the damn thing just fell apart. I would be reminded throughout the day that a good pita is hard to find around here.

2. TURKISH KITCHEN- 1986 Shattuck (@ University), Berkeley, 11am- $6.25

Although the workmanlike falafel at Bongo was quite large, I was far from full afterwards and was confident that this session would go smoothly with only a modicum of discomfort. I walked up and down the Telegraph strip checking to see if the 3 other nearby falafel places had opened for business, but I was out of luck. I headed down to Shattuck and arrived at the Turkish Kitchen just as they were opening. It was 11am and I had only eaten one falafel. By this time on the last session, I was already in the double-digits on tacos.

Turkish Kitchen is in the space formerly occupied by Truly Mediterranean. The new place has many of the same generic Middle Eastern items as the old place, but they now also have a few dishes specific to Turkey, which is a good thing, as I’m not aware of any other Turkish restaurant in the area. There’s a big-screen TV on the wall. It was tuned to a Turkish satellite station that was playing a talk show hosted by a guy who was clearly a big fan of Larry King. He had the same haircut and glasses and even wore suspenders and a tie without a jacket and he had his sleeves rolled up. Despite the host's western-isms, all of his guests looked like extras from Midnight Express.

I was only the second customer of the day, but it took at least 15 minutes to get my food. I gather they had to wait for the oil to heat up, so I wouldn't expect this long of a wait for a falafel later in the day. I was pleased to see the falafel sandwich here was almost half the size of the one from Bongo Burger. If places kept serving me portions like this, it would've been smooth sailing start to finish. The falafel was wrapped in lavash, rather than pita. I understand lavash-wrapped falafels are more common in certain Middle Eastern areas and I definitely prefer it to the crummy pitas most of the places served on this session. A pita has to be really soft, fluffy, and fresh, otherwise it really sucks for falafel. Lavash is kind of non-descript and inobtrusive, so if you don't feel like putting forth the effort for a high-quality pita, for God's sake, just use lavash on the falafel. Lavash is sort of invisible-tasting. Overall, the falafel here was better than Bongo's. The seasoning was balanced nicely, and although it wasn't as spicy as the Bongo falafel (a slight disappointment), other than that, everything about it was superior to Bongo's version. The balls were quite crunchy on the outside and the inside wasn't mushy at all. I could actually detect large pieces of beans inside the Turkish falafel, while Bongo’s insides were like spicy malt-o-meal. In addition to the falafel balls, the lavash was stuffed with diced onions, tomatoes, and iceberg lettuce (despite the fact the menu said red cabbage), and they didn’t go overboard with the tahini sauce. This was a pretty light sandwich. If I wasn't power-eating, I could easily have eaten the falafel, another sandwich of its size, and one of their Turkish main dishes, and still would have had room for baklava. I was doing great. I liked how the second falafel was better than the first and how I wasn't even slightly full yet. I figured things were going to get better as I went and envisioned a deliciousness-inspired hallucination by the time I got to falafel #8 that evening.

3. APOLLO CAFE- 501 Fell (@ Laguna), San Francisco- 2:33pm- $5.99

In retrospect, going to San Francisco for this session was an idiotic move on my part. The only reason I went there was so I could eat at King of Falafil, which used to hold the title as my favorite all-time falafel. Had I only remembered what was happening in the city that particular Saturday, there’s no way in hell I would've gone over there. I could've saved myself a world of pain if I'd just stayed on the right side of the Bay. I rarely go to SF, and if there’s a “happening” going on, I avoid that town at all costs. I boarded BART at West Oakland and immediately knew something funny was going on. The train was packed with flamboyant teens making out with other flamboyant teens of the same gender. And there was 2% more guys than usual sporting Rob Halford hats and handlebar moustaches. I then realized that it was Gay Pride weekend. Every gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (just added!) individual and his/her/its mother was in SF for this event. “More power to them!” I said to myself, supporting their cause, while figuring this huge crowd would have no impact on my journey to total garbanzofication. But as soon as I got off the train, I discovered that their political agenda would throw a monkeywrench into the machinations of my eating session.

I exited at the Civic Center station on the Grove St. side, directly in front of the Burger King across from the big library and adjacent to a place called Gyro King, which I had read had excellent falafels. To my chagrin, I noticed that the entire street was cordoned off and guarded by a big Bear who asked for a $5 "donation" to allow entry onto Grove St., a hub of the Pride festivities. He stood there like Charon, waiting to ferry me across the river Styx and into the land of assless chaps. On any other day, I would've coughed up a fin and walked through the festival to check out the goings on, but on this day, I had falafels to eat and didn't have time for rainbow flags, gloryholes, or original cast recordings of Annie Get Your Gun. Sorry gay friends, but I had a mission and it really wasn't about you that day. Call me a homophobic fascist if you must, but while I sincerely support your right to marry and to engage in unlimited public sodomy, I draw the line when a festival of buggery supersedes my ability to eat 8 falafels in one waking day without having to pay a toll. Besides, I believe there’s a passage in Deuteronomy where God commands the Israelites to eat chick peas mixed with mannah until they can eat no more and to build their huts with their golden droppings. Talmudic scholars have interpreted this to mean that frequent gorging on falafel-like dishes is a commandment from the Almighty. Thus, your infringement on my eating session was naught but an attack on Judeo-Christian values! Repent sinners!

Because I couldn't get to the Gyro King without paying $5 just to walk the half block to their door, I decided to walk around the Pride area to the next place where I knew I could find falafels- the Apollo Cafe in Hayes Valley. Chances are, if you live in a large city and you have a computer, you are familiar with, the website where users can rate local businesses in their area, especially restaurants. I've always taken those reviews with a grain of salt, due to the ridiculous criteria some reviewers use to rate restaurants. I've read several reviews where a reviewer will actually knock off a star from an eatery's review because there was too much traffic on the street where the place was located. After eating at Apollo, I now feel that Yelp reviews are essentially worthless. From this day forth, I will use Yelp only to find out if a place exists and will completely disregard the reviews. There were people on Yelp hyping up Apollo as having the best falafels ever. How is this possible? Did the owners post their own reviews? I know that food is very subjective, but there is NO WAY that anybody alive would consider this the best falafel, if they’d ever eaten another falafel anywhere.

When I walked into the place I got a little nervous. It’s essentially a convenience store/coffee shop with some refrigerated deli cases. I didn't see room for a fryer. Unless they cooked the falafel in the back somewhere, I was in trouble. The people there were very nice and excited to see a customer, as the place was totally empty. After I ordered, the counter guy said something in a foreign language to what I assume was his mother. She knelt down and opened a small refrigerator and pulled out a large Tupperware-like container. Uh-oh. She opened the container and pulled out 4 falafel balls! If I wasn't doing "a bit" and if time wasn't of the essence, I would've cancelled the order then and there. I had a cold falafel reheat about 10 years ago that was one of the worst things I've ever eaten. Not only does refrigerated falafel get extremely dry, it also gets bitter. A falafel should be eaten IMMEDIATELY after it is fried. Every second that passes after frying detracts from its overall quality. It’s bad enough to serve a room temperature falafel mere minutes out of the fryer, but serving a cold falafel, even a reheated cold falafel, is beyond the pale. I sighed and sat down while the lady heated up the balls in the microwave. The guy asked me if I wanted homemade hot sauce on the falafel. You’re damn right I want hot sauce, Jack! I’ll need everything possible to cover up the taste of those old-ass falafel balls you’re working with. Gimme hot sauce, ranch dressing, caramel, and marshmallow fluff- anything to cover up that funky stuff you're about to serve me, you evil, evil man.

As expected, this sandwich was nothing short of an abomination. Not only did I get reheated falafel balls, they had the affrontery to serve me them on a tortilla. No, it was not lavash; it was a cold flour tortilla! Nice effort there, folks. And despite their time spent in the microwave, the falafel balls were still cold inside. I can’t comment on how they were spiced, because other than the hot sauce (the only thing that kept the thing from being utterly inedible), all I could taste was that dry bitterness I had experienced the only other time I’d eaten a falafel prepared like this. Somehow the balls were still mushy. After sitting in the fridge, I would've expected them to firm up like a Jell-o mold. There was some tomato, lettuce, and tahini on there, but so what? The whole thing was a trainwreck. I came to SF for this? Damn you, homosexuals, and your $5 street toll! I was originally going to eat at Gyro King before heading north towards to King of Falafil, but I figured I should eat at least one falafel in the general area, so I came over to Hayes Valley. On my way over there, I actually spotted a new falafel place (Kebab-something-or-other) on Hayes, I believe. I should've just stopped there, but I decided to opt for Apollo, due to its stellar Yelp reviews. Stupid.

The only thing positive I can say about the falafel sandwich at Apollo was that it was small. Three entries into the game and I was not even satiated, let alone full. The plan now was to walk over to Fillmore, take the #22 bus up to Bush and then walk along Bush until I got to the corner of Divisadero, the home of King of Falafil. Why I didn't follow this plan is a mystery lost to the ages.

4. ALI BABA'S CAVE- 531 Haight (@ Fillmore), San Francisco- 2:51pm- $4.75

I walked up the hill on Fell St. in disgust until I had a realization. There was a Middle Eastern place in the Lower Haight where I had eaten a falafel once in about 1998. As I approached Fillmore St, I instantly decided to change my plans. I would eat at the Lower Haight place; then take the bus to King of Falafil; then walk back to Fillmore and Bush; and then take the 22 bus to the Mission, where I would eat at Truly Mediterranean (16th and Valencia) and Jerusalem (Mission and 24th.) It seemed like a great idea at the time.

Ali Baba looked like a contender. There were multiple fryers and a large grill. This place wasn’t some falafel pretender convenience store like Apollo, even though they had a seemingly endless clientele of skinny 20-something guys who wore tight, threadbare, thriftstore t-shirts that were originally owned by 7-year-old girls. And these guys wore these flimsy shirts with a scarf and no jacket. (What’s the deal with that look? Do those guys have cold necks, but hot torsos? Worst. Look. Ever.) But then I ordered the falafel and the fucker took previously-fried falafel balls out of the fryer basket and put them in the lavash as-is! Jesus man, if you’re too lazy to make me some fresh balls, at least dunk those old balls in the hot oil for a minute. I sat down, annoyed, but the room temperature falafel balls would be the least of my problems at this place.

Holy crow. This thing was massive. It was bigger than the previous three falafels combined. I mean, it was the size and weight of an American child’s leg. You know those gargantuan (usually mediocre) super burritos they sell in the Mission? This thing was bigger than those. The guy had grilled the whole sandwich on the grill like they sometimes do with a burrito, but he was so busy talking Arabic on his cellphone that he left the damn thing on there way too long. Now I was stuck with a falafel the size of a Buick with room temperature balls surrounded in a wrapper the texture of a saltine. Luckily, the balls themselves were not even close to being as bad as Apollo's. They were pretty crunchy outside and not mushy inside; the spice balance was right and the hot sauce I had requested was actually pretty hot. But, the falafel balls were still suffering, due to the fact that they had been sitting around for at least a few minutes. They were already starting to get that slightly bitter undertaste I mentioned earlier. To be fair, the flavor really wasn’t THAT bad. On a regular day, I’d probably have no serious issues with this sandwich, even with the unheated balls. And if the guy would’ve just stuck them in the oil, the falafel would’ve likely been as good as the one at Turkish Delight and better than Bongo's version. But with three falafel sandwiches in me already and a truckload of lukewarm cracker-wrapped bitter balls to deal with, I was not amused.

I finished the first half of that monster without too much effort, but I began to slow when the previous 3 sandwiches stood up in my stomach demanding to be recognized. I was able to finish the whole thing within about 30 minutes, but at the end I could barely move. I didn’t know what to do. I went to the bathroom and tried to take a dump but only emitted a "phantom deuce," which provided very little relief. I needed to take my time before I ate anything else, so rather than take the bus, I decided to walk to King of Falafil, which is about 1.5 miles away. In my condition, I figured it could take a seriously long time for me to get all the way over there, which might allow me to regain some degree of hunger. And if the King of Falfil falafel was as good as I remembered it to be, I was counting on it to revive me into an eating frenzy. If only it had worked out that way...

5. KING OF FALAFIL- 1801 Divisadero (@ Bush), San Francisco- 3:59pm- $4.75

I waddled along Divisadero, but the trip didn’t take as long as I had hoped. I arrived still stuffed from the Ali Baba chick pea log. Alas, the walk had provided no relief. As I was about to cross Bush St., I looked into the window at King of Falafil and I began to panic. There were chairs on top of many of the tables. Oh no! Were they closed? I could see that that there were still some people inside, so I shuffled across the street as fast I could to see if they were still serving. I asked the girl behind the counter if I was too late for falafel. “It’s never too late for falafel!” was her response. Great answer. Maybe this trip to SF wasn’t a total bust, I thought to myself.

When I lived in SF, I used to come to K of F as often as possible for the falafel, the burgers, and the fresh cut fries. There’s a big sign inside that says they're the 6-time Billy Award winner for best falafel. I have no idea where this award is bestowed, whom the competition is, or who the judges are, but it seems like a prestigious prize. The K of F falafel balls I remember were huge, very crispy on the outside, and nice and dense on the inside. Their texture was exactly like a Long John Silver’s hush puppy, if it was made out of garbanzos, rather than cornmeal. The seasoning was always perfectly in balance, with no single ingredient upstaging another. And the King always coated the outside of the balls with a lot of sesame seeds, which I really love. If there is indeed an award for excellence in the falafel arts, the K of F balls I knew were a truly worthy recipient.

I’m now well aware of the fact that I walked into K of F minutes before they were officially closed, but that does not excuse what happened on this visit. The lady took a massive pita and laid it on the grill. After it was warm, she cut it in half. I was overjoyed that it would only be a half-pita sandwich because Ali Baba remained precisely where he had stood in my belly prior to my walk up Divisadero. But then you broke my heart, King of Falafil. How could you do this to me? The lady took room temperature falafel balls out of a bowl and put them in both sides of the pita. Nooooooooo! I’ve been going to this place since 1998. I’d never once had a falafel from K of F that wasn’t blazing hot right out of the fryer. I’d never even seen them throw a pre-cooked ball back in the oil. It’s always been freshly made balls there- sizzling, dark brown, and extra crunchy. But today, they totally lamed out on me. C’mon King! If I’m too late to get a real falafel, just tell me. I would’ve been really bummed that I had walked that far only to find you closed, but at least I’d only have myself to blame. Because you gave me second rate cold falafel balls, I now have to hold a grudge against you. I’m sure I’ll eventually try you earlier in the day to make sure you still have the power to make the best damn falafels west of the Mississippi, but I’ll do it reluctantly. The way I feel now, I’m actually considering contacting the Billy Awards to demand they revoke your award. For shame!

To make matters even worse, both sides of that pita were for MY falafel. I had figured the other half was for a call-in order or something. No, it was all for me. Even though they told me I didn’t have to take the falafel to go, I couldn’t eat it in there. I was too disappointed. It’s like when your best friend lets you down and you can’t look him/her in the eye for a while. I went outside, sick to my stomach from both garbanzos and resentment. I didn’t want to eat anything, let alone a cold-ass falafel the size of a bisected wheel of brie. I went around the corner and sat on the steps outside of the backdoor of the hospital. I unwrapped the first half and took a bite. I was still so stuffed, it was hard to chew, let alone swallow. All those sesame seeds were there and the color was right, but everything was cold, not even lukewarm. And the pita was thin and brittle and the whole thing was falling apart in the paper. Perhaps it was just the coldness of the balls fooling my tongue, but the balls were bland. All I could taste was oil, the sesame seeds, and the freezing cold tahini they drowned the balls with. I forced myself to eat half of the first half of the falafel, but there was no way that I could even finish half of that thing in one sitting. It was too cold, too tasteless, too messy, and I was too full to eat anything else, especially not a falafel that represented utter defeat.

Fuck you, San Francisco. You’re overcrowded, too expensive, full of yuppie and hipster jerks, and on Gay Pride weekend, you made me hate you for serving me three consecutive letdown falafels. I had to get out of that town. There was no way I was going to be able to eat the 2 additional sandwiches I had planned in the Mission. And even if I could have, I couldn't bear to deal with anymore SF falafel half-assedness. I just wanted to go home to Oakland. I could've gotten on a bus somewhere, but I decided to walk and burn off some more chick peas and disillusionment. I walked down Bush all the way to Market St., stopping occasionally to take tiny bites of the first half of the falafel. It took me at least an hour to span that distance (about 2 miles), but by the time I got to the Montgomery BART station, I had finished the first half. I was still as full as when I left Ali Baba, but now my feet hurt, my stomach hurt, and my feelings hurt.

When I got on the train it was packed. All those free-spirits laughing and kissing and talking like Rip Taylor in their homosexual finery just made me feel worse, especially because I couldn’t sit down, due to the crush of LGBT(I) revelers. I didn’t get to sit until I made it to my car, which was parked on the street outside of the West Oakland BART. I sat in the driver's seat, panting and emitting a constant stream of vapors that had an aroma that reminded me of my childhood when my dad would go get Chinese take out in those little square cardboard containers and I'd smell that food while I sat in the back of the Galaxy 500. Yes, I said it! My farts actually smelled better than those SF falafels tasted. I needed a nap, but sleeping there would’ve asphyxiated me faster than if I had parked my Civic in a garage with the engine running and the door closed. I drove home as fast as I could. I unbuckled my pants and sat on the couch and farted and sobbed. Farted and sobbed. Goodbye San Francisco. You, your toll-taking Bears, and your crappy falafels have let me down for the last time.

6. SIMPLY GREEK- 4060 Piedmont (@ Glen), Oakland- 7:58pm- $5.89

There I sat with my pants undone, filling the room with gaseous reminders of my unsuccessful journey to The City. The remaining half of the K of F falafel lay on the coffee table before me, but I could barely touch it. By the time Kelly returned from the salon, I think I had eaten no more than 4 bites out of the remaining half. The tahini had turned into a thick paste, it smelled awful, and was colder than imaginable. As I grimaced, Kelly once again yelled at me to quit, but that was out of the question, of course. She said if I wasn’t going to quit then I had to start eating again immediately before all the falafel places were closed. But before I could go to a new place, I had to finish the K of F falafel, which sat there mocking me. I got a big glass of water. After each bite, I would drink a big swig of water, and flatulate vigorously. To my surprise, I somehow managed to ingest the foul offering in its entirety a mere 3 ½ hours after I had purchased it. Even more time had passed since I ate at Ali Baba, yet that cursed 2x4 of spiced beans would not relent. I had no idea that I would be so uncomfortable this late in the day, but my digestive organs continued to strain against my abdominal cavity at full force. Yet I had to continue. Time was running out.

Simply Greek has the best gyro I’ve ever had in the Bay Area. I realize this statement doesn’t say very much, considering the dearth of gyros around here, but I believe their gyro could hold its own even in Chicago, where by law there are 17 gyro/hot dog/Italian beef stands on every block. Although I was in agony, I fully expected them to at least give me a top-notch falafel so I could taste something delicious as my colon ruptured. But, boy, do these guys get falafel wrong!

I'll list the only pros about their falafel. Firstly, they fry the balls to order, which had never seemed like a big deal before, but after what I’d been through in SF, it now seemed like the ultimate gesture of fine cuisine. Secondly, the pita at Simply Greek is far and away the best pita of any place around here. It’s thick, fluffy, soft, chewy, and tastes fresh. And they grill it a little to give it a toasty/smokey kind of taste. Other than those two things, they got EVERYTHING very, very, wrong. My God, the balls were beyond mushy. The outsides barely had a crust and the insides were like peanut butter. And the seasoning was just vile. They went crazy on the cumin. Cumin is a very aromatic type of seed. If you exceed the correct amount by even a little bit, it overpowers everything. They used tzatziki sauce, rather than tahini. While this in itself wouldn’t have been a terrible thing, when it was coupled with the assault of the cumin it made for a very unpleasant overall experience. The pita was loaded up with iceberg lettuce, but no onions to help offset some of the cumin taste. Eating this thing was a nightmare. Even if I wasn’t full beyond the limits of common decency, this falafel would have been very difficult to finish. Every bite of that peanut buttery cumin goo brought a little vomit into my esophagus. I had to eat very slowly, lest the whole effort come to a screeching halt right there on Piedmont. I don’t know how I finished the falafel there. This was probably the single most disgusting item I’d eaten at any stage of any session of IEM. The only thing that comes close is the whiting I ate from JJ Fish during the Fish and Chips session, which I threw away after one bite. I cannot stress strongly enough- do NOT get a falafel from Simply Greek. Get a gyro or souvlaki if you’re a carnivore. If you’re a vegetarian, get a Greek salad or hummus. I’ve had all of those items and they were excellent. I can’t believe the owners have ever tried the falafel they serve. I’m guessing they found a recipe online somewhere and substituted "tablespoons" for "teaspoons" for the cumin amount listed.

I really wanted to stop at that point. The excuciating fullness was bad enough, but having to contend with such terrible-tasting falafel was really depressing. I really thought I liked this particular food, but maybe I didn't. If so many places are serving such unpleasant items, and listing them all under the banner of falafel, perhaps I need to reassess my feelings on this foodstuff.

7. D'YAR- 2511 Durant (@ Telegraph), Berkeley- 8:53pm- $4.99

I wasn’t happy to have to go back the UC Berkeley Telegraph Ave. area again. I didn't want to see those go-getters when I felt like my abdomen was being inflated from inside with an air mattress pump. I was afraid they'd be mocking me somehow. But my pickings were getting slim. D’yar used to be called Eat-a-Pita. I know I ate there a really long time ago, but I can’t remember it at all. All I’ve heard from other people is how bad Eat-a-Pita was, but the new place is pretty good. If you like falafel and you haven’t already consumed 5000 metric tons of garbanzo patties when you go there, I expect you may enjoy D’Yar. The place was clean and they were playing decent Arabic music, rather than the cheesed-out Arab-pop that some of these places play. The owner guy had an awesome combover and a sweet moustache and was very much the captain of the ship here. He was training 2 new guys on the proper way to cut the meat off the spinning shawarma meat log. He was patient, but very particular with how they should cut it. One of the guys cut off a slice that looked completely usable and delicious, but the owner took the knife back from the trainee and re-demonstrated the “correct” way to cut the meat off of the log, working the knife with a Zorro-like flourish. The piece of meat the owner produced was exactly the same as the one the trainee had cut. It seemed kind of anal to me, but maybe Allah commands that spinning meat is cut in a particular fashion (while facing Mecca, perhaps.) Both of the trainees were Mexican and began talking to each other in Spanish and shrugging their shoulders while the owner came over to take my order. I believe I heard them use the phrase “pinche Jefe” once or twice. Face it, owner guy. In 10 years, all restaurants in the US will be completely staffed and owned by Mexicans and they’ll be cutting the meat-log the way the want to do it, so get over it.

It was cold as hell in there, but the cold was helping me from falling into a falafel-induced slumber. D’Yar’s falafel wasn’t a dirigible like Ali Baba, but it was still pretty big, so I had serious doubts if I could finish it off within a reasonable amount of time. I was under the impression that, if necessary, I had until 11pm to get to the falafel place in the Emeryville International Market food court to fulfill the 8 falafel minimum. I had that as my ace in the hole, or so I thought, but I really wanted to get the final falafel from one of the nearby places so I could get home sooner. The D'Yar falafel was in lavash that had been somewhat toasted, but not cracker-ized like Ali Baba’s. The guy brought me some homemade green hot sauce, that wasn’t very hot, but imparted some interesting herbal flavors to the already complex spices in the falafel itself. In addition to the usual suspects, D’Yar’s falafel seemed to have a slight undertaste of cinnamon, which was actually quite pleasant here, as all the seasonings were perfectly in balance. I also used the red hot sauce from the condiment area, which was much hotter than the green stuff and gave the sandwich a great kick. The balls were rather crunchy on the outside, and while they were a little less firm on the inside than I prefer, they were better than several of the places today and would be totally worth eating under normal circumstances.

I was actually enjoying the flavor of the falafel quite a bit, but I really had hit the wall. Everytime I bit into the falafel, the bite of food would travel mere inches down my esophagus before returning into my mouth like a boomerang. It was getting late and I couldn’t tarry any more in hopes of building up an appetite again. I had to purchase another falafel somewhere and eat both the final falafel and the D’Yar falafel at home later that night to fulfill the session. I wrapped the falafel in foil and we walked up the street to see if the falafel place in the Durant Food court was still open. They were closed. As we walked further up Durant, I almost puked on the sidewalk at least 3 times before we reached the car. I wasn't nauseous, you understand. I was just about to overflow. Buckling my seat belt was a chore of monumental effort. When I was finally strapped in, I drove past the Sunrise Deli on Bancroft, but they were also closed. (Is that place EVER open?) It appeared that the food court in Emeryville would indeed be the last stop on this trip to chick pea damnation.

8. 5 Star Pizza (3109 Telegraph @31st), Oakland- $5.25

When we got to the Emeryville food court, I about shat my pants out of panic (not from the garbanzos.) The parking lot was almost completely empty. It wasn’t even 10pm yet and the review said they were open until 11pm on Saturday. We walked to the door and learned the whole place had closed at 9! Fuck Yelp! That site is no good. Don’t read that thing anymore. From this day forward, if you want to know where to eat, you should only trust IEM, because Yelp is full of lies and ignorance.

After having a tantrum about that place being closed, my mind began scrambling. It was 9 o’clock. Where the hell could I get a falafel that late? I had read another Yelp review about some other place in Emeryville (Wally’s), but I wasn’t able to find it. (Note: I found Wally’s on a later day and it was exactly where Yelp said it was, but I’ve yet to try it.) I was drawing a blank. Once again, one of my biggest gripes about living in the Bay Area came to light. Why does everything have to close so early here? At 9pm in New York, things are just getting started. In Oakland, 9pm is “last call” for a good chunk of the restaurants. Things stay open a little later in SF, but not by much. What a rip off.

Here’s what I was facing: it was 9pm, I was stuffed beyond comprehension with 6 1/2 falafel sandwiches in me, but if I couldn’t find an 8th falafel to eat, the whole session wouldn’t count, per IEM rules. Believe me; I was going to be VERY pissed if I had eaten all of those nasty things for nothing. I began to think hard, which was not easy, because I was constantly distracted by the explosions coming out of my pants. I went into a meditative state and then it hit me. Was that pizza place on Telegraph near Alta Bates Hospital in Oakland still open?

We had eaten at 5 Star Pizza once in 2001, less than a month after 9/11. The place was run by some kind of Muslims/Arabs. When we got there to order a pizza for pick-up, we found about a dozen heavily-bearded guys in various Islamic headgear and kaftan-like garments looking like they were auditioning to be Bin-Laden impersonators. They were all yelling at each other in Arabic and pointing at the TV, which was set to Al Jazeera’s endless footage of the aftermath of the attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon. I’m sure these guys were all America-loving citizens who were merely expressing their outrage towards these cowardly attacks on the U.S.A. (insert sarcasm emoticon here.) But in that post-9/11 climate of fear, I have to admit seeing these dudes was really a little scary. We walked past the Osama lookalikes towards the counter, hoping they didn’t shout “Allah akbar!” and blow themselves up right then and there along with us and the pizzeria. What a waste of pepperoni that would've been. But, they didn’t even notice us. When we ordered the pizza, we noticed the menu also listed sandwiches, burgers, falafel, and some other Middle Eastern fare. I remember the pizza being pretty mediocre, even by Bay Area standards, but I made a mental note to try the falafel there sometime.

Until this session, we never returned there and we referred to the place only as “Terror Pizza.” I drove down Telegraph with my fingers crossed. They were open! No Bin Laden guys anymore. Maybe they’re all at Guantanamo, or they were in the back making shoe bombs. Or perhaps they thought the pizza at 5 Stars sucked and they now go to Lanesplitter to hang out with douchebags in the Temescal. There were just a couple of West African-looking guys this time talking on their cellphones. I had no idea what time this place closed, so I was afraid they might not be able to make a falafel this late, but the counter lady was really friendly and said I could have one. “Is it okay if it’s on a roll?” she asked. At this point, I didn’t expect much from any falafel. I just had to eat this one and the other half of the D’Yar falafel to make the session official. I didn’t care at all what kind of breadlike carrier they gave me for the falafel balls. It took a few minutes to get the sandwich. Once again, I expect it took a while to get the oil hot. It was wrapped in foil and was about a foot long, but somehow it was quite lightweight. I took the sandwich and went home.

I sat on the couch. I was still in no shape for eating. The D’Yar falafel was really cold now, so its taste had deteriorated considerably from when I ordered it. I’m sure it was close to 11pm by the time I finished that thing, which was done by taking dozens of pea-sized nibbles. And then something strange happened. I was suddenly hungry again. I was going to finish the session! I unwrapped the 5 Star falafel. The sandwich consisted of a few falafel balls on a sesame roll with some hand-torn pieces of iceberg (not shredded) lettuce, and some diced onions. There was no tahini that I could detect. I bit into the sandwich. The balls were only slightly crunchy on the outside, but the inside wasn’t mushy at all. It had that grain-like consistency I really like. And the seasoning was subtle, but flavorful. Best of all, the roll complemented the balls perfectly. It was a soft roll, similar to the great rolls you get at sub/hero shops back East. It was missing tahini, but I didn’t miss it. (Perhaps it was the lack of tahini that kept the sandwich from getting freezing, which is what became of the D’Yar and King of Falafil sandwiches that sat around for hours before they were fully consumed.)

I couldn’t believe it. The sandwich was somehow considerably better than the sum of its parts. Despite all its idiosyncracies, this was a great falafel. I ate it in less than 5 minutes and probably could’ve eaten another one at that point. I was astounded. How did this happen? Just an hour before, I was bloated and feeling like I never wanted to bite into a falafel again as long as I lived, but when I ate the 5 Star sandwich, it tasted like the greatest falafel I’d ever eaten. If not for that falafel, I might seriously have considered NEVER eating one of those things again- at least not around here. I was seriously let down by so many inconsistent sandwiches on this session, with many of the purveyors too lazy to serve hot falafel balls. If not for the 5 Star sandwich swooping in to save the day, I’d have lost all faith in falafel. Granted, I’m still going to be much more particular about falafel in the future. As soon as I walk into a joint, I’m gonna come right out and ask them a bunch of questions about their method of preparation. And if they’re using pita, I’m gonna ask to see one first. If a place is using cold or reheated balls and/or papery pitas, I getting the hell out of there and I’m getting a fucking cheeseburger or something. (Note: I went back to 5 Star this past weekend. The falafel was still sans-tahini and was still on the same sesame roll, but this time I ate it with an empty stomach. And it was still delicious! Believe that.)

The Best:

  • 5 Star Pizza
  • Turkish Kitchen

The Worst:

  • Simply Greek
  • Apollo CafĂ©

IN AUGUST: Inhuman Machine #5: ICE CREAM!!