Sunday, November 10, 2013

Falafels in Paris

Now, let’s get down to the serious business of falafels. In Paris, that means going to the 4th Arrondissement to Rue des Rosiers in the Jewish section of the Marais. Here in the Pletzl, you’ll find a number of walk-up (and sit down) restaurants serving kosher middle eastern food from from nearly identical sets of menus.

Rue des Rosiers on a busy Sunday afternoon.
 Ground zero for Parisian falafel.
To the uninitiated, the collection of falafel joints here all seem pretty much the same. Once you’ve tried the falafel sandwiches from various places, however, you realize that even though the they all use the same ingredients (houmous, salade turque, crudites-boulettes, aubergines and creme de sesame) arranged in a pita in more or less the same way, there are subtle differences in the taste with indescribable qualities that clearly make some falafel better than others. The whole phenomenon of the Rue des Rosiers falafel boom seemed to occur just over ten years ago when a local Parisian restaurant review of Chez Hanna (54 Rue des Rosiers), at the eastern end of Rosiers, placed it among the 10 best in Paris. Not among the 10 best middle eastern restaurants, but among the best of any type of restaurant in Paris. Significant praise, especially since their falafel sandwich sold for the equivalent of about $2 US.

Chez Hanna - After I bought a falafel here, a small
group of curious tourists gathered.
Afterwards, the lines at Hanna’s street-side pick-up window would be 100’s deep. Their prices began to grow as well. The other Jewish restaurant along Rosiers also enjoyed the popularity, but it was Hanna that was king of the street at that time.

That’s changed over the years and Hanna has lost its mojo. There’s really no discernible difference when looking at their sandwich now, but one taste tells you they just don’t have IT anymore. It’s sad because you can now walk right up to their window and there’re no lines, even at the busiest times of the day. They’ll eagerly serve you when back in their heyday, they copped a haughty attitude, seemingly doing you a favor to serve you. Probably added to the mystique.

L'As du Fallafel  - Reigning Supreme
That was then and the undisputed king of the street now is L'As du Fallafel with 2 ‘l’s (32 Rue des Rosiers). Translation: the Ace of Falafel. They’ve reigned supreme for at least several years with their slightly spicy falafel, tangy, with a drizzling of tahini and harissa, savory eggplant and crisp vegetables. They open two serving windows during the busiest periods and have waiters working the lines in the street to take preorders. It’s quite an operation and they’re obviously capitalizing on their popularity to the max.

Right across the street from L'As du’ is mi-va-mi, the self-proclaimed “Best Of The Street.” They’re my slight favorite over L'A du’ and, judging from the lines there (not quite as long as L'As du’), rank as 2nd favorite of the falafel crowds. Their actual falafel is formed slightly smaller than their competitors and has a spicy and slightly more ‘middle-eastern’ flavor to it.

mi-va-mi Falafel - Superbe!
On a recent taste testing expedition to Rosiers, I asked a man waiting in line at mi-va-mi why he preferred it over the others. He happened to be a long-time falafel aficionado and explained that after years of trying the different restaurants, mi-va-mi really had it. Like my experience, it’s a mostly indescribable magic that you know when you taste it. Some have it, some had it and lost it, and some never had it at all. He agreed that Hanna wasn't as good as it used to be, but was at a loss to explain why. I understood.

My taste testing on that day involved first getting a sandwich at L'As du’, then going 20 feet to the other side of the street to get an identical one at mi-va-mi. It was the slow time of the day and neither restaurant had a line at that point. When the preparer at mi-va-mi saw me coming straight over from his competitor L'As du’, he commented to the effect that I must be performing a comparison and he seemed to take it as a challenge. A falafel sandwich can normally be thrown together in under 30 seconds, but he was intent on tweaking the preparation and spent nearly 3 minutes carefully layering the ingredients. I was becoming impatient and slightly suspicious at this point. However, when I later tasted this falafel, it was probably the best I’d ever eaten. Tiff had some and agreed. In falafel gastronomy, I suppose it can now only go downhill from there.

There are several other notable sources for falafel on the street. There’s King Falafel Palace - strictly entry level falafel. There’s also Chez Marianne, which is more a sit-down, family oriented place that’s often open on certain Sundays when the other restaurants are closed.
mi-va-mi - accepting the falafel challenge
with competitor L'As du.