University City is on the cutting edge of a world food phenomenon: the rise of the falafel.
Long a staple street food across the Middle East, the crispy balls of chickpeas and spices wrapped in pita bread have gone global, just as the Arab Spring is dominating international headlines.
"Watch out food lovers!" proclaims Just Falafel, a newly launched restaurant chain based in the United Arab Emirates: "Our falafelution is taking the world by storm."
McDonald's, the multinational fast-food giant, is already on the falafel bandwagon; they've sold McFalafels for more than a decade in Cairo and Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Subway began test-marketing falafels in Chicago this year.
Though it might take a while before McFalafel appears at our local Golden Arches, we don't have to wait. University City has become Charlotte's falafel epicenter, with no fewer than three restaurants ready to provide a falafel fix. Seeking them out takes you on an edible tour of the Mediterranean, from Cairo to Casablanca, within walking distance of UNC Charlotte.
Along with falafel, Bigger Bite, near the corner of Tryon and Clay, boasts a vast panoramic mural of the pyramids and Sphinx, covering an entire wall. Better Bite's homemade falafel recipe may go all the way back to the snack's spicy roots. According to one falafel creation myth (there are many competing versions), Coptic Christians in Alexandria created the first falafel (from "filfil," Arabic for "spicy") from fava beans and chickpeas as a replacement for meat during Lent.
The Onsi family, Bigger Bite's owners, traces its ancestry straight back to - you guessed it - Alexandria. They moved to Charlotte after successfully managing restaurants in Boston. One of the family's sons, Ramy Onsi, came up with the idea of adding Middle Eastern and Egyptian food to their mostly American menu:
"I told my mom - who is a great cook - that she should get out Grandma's recipes," said Onsi.
Better Bite's falafel has a verdant parsley-sage color from traditional spices. It's the spiciest (hottest) of the falafels sampled. If you are traditionally minded, be sure to request pita bread. Since high quality "pocket" pita is hard to find in Charlotte, Onsi says, they normally serve falafels as a wrap, using a flour tortilla.
The Akropolis Cafe
The Akropolis Cafe, a Greek-themed restaurant in the shopping center north of the intersection of Harris and University City Blvd, was the first eatery in the area to offer falafel. The Shokoufar family, who own and manage the restaurant, is Iranian in origin. In an alcove at the Akropolis are framed photos of the beautiful Baha'i World Center in Haifa, the central shrine of the family's spiritual tradition. You can tell there's a university across the street - a wireless router with blinking blue lights sits on the counter right next to the baklava, on display under an old-fashioned glass cake dome.
The Akropolis serves falafel on a nice chewy pita, with plenty of fresh lettuce and tomatoes. It's a family recipe, made from scratch. The falafel balls are smaller than traditional size, with lots of crunch. Akropolis serves their falafel not with tahini but with tzadziki, the Greek yogurt and cucumber sauce. Request tahini, if you prefer it.
To round out the tour, there's the Casablanca Cafe, a Moroccan restaurant in the mall on Tryon anchored by the Flying Saucer, the haufbrauhaus that lubricates UNCC's interconnected enterprises of learning, angst and love.
Walk through Casablanca's door and you're in Morocco. Shortly after owner Sam Roussi opened, one reviewer dissed the interior for being "as spare as a stage for Becket." She needs to come back, lean back on a comfy pillow in a dark corner, and take a big hit on a hookah, available for rent after 8 p.m. The place has changed a lot in two years.
Roussi is a big, welcoming presence, and his staff, who hail from Alexandria to Zanzibar, are friendly, interesting folks who make you feel right at home, even in the midst of three flat screens playing Arab music videos.
At Casablanca, the falafel, also homemade from a family recipe, is a "classic" version: golden brown inside, crunchy outside and not heavily spiced, served on pita with tahini.
Each University City restaurant that serves falafel specializes in a particular food tradition - Egyptian at Bigger Bite, Iranian at The Akropolis, and Moroccan at Casablanca. Each is unique, and together they demonstrate the great diversity of the Middle East, in food and culture. However, all agree unanimously and emphatically about one thing:
Never, ever eat falafel with ketchup.
At least, don't let anyone catch you.