Pahal Zan: Falafel and Mediterranean Grill
106-12 71st Ave., Forest Hills, NY
Review by SuSu, MaceVindaloo, Diana
First, this place is kosher, meaning not only do they follow kosher laws, but also they are closed on Friday night and all of Saturday in observance of the Jewish tradition of Shabbat. In fact, it says so on their hours: "Fri. 11:00am - 1Hr. Before Shabbat." These guys are seriously Israeli; Shabbat starts at sundown on Friday night, in case you didn't realize. So you can't just drop in for a meal on your normal leisure days or nights, because they ain't open. You need to plan ahead or lucky.
Second, it's a hole-in-the-wall, so don't expect table service or fancy plates and cutlery. It's strictly pick-up and delivery, although there are stools jammed up against slim counters set on the two walls. The front door takes up the whole expanse of the front wall. Expect food to be passed over your head if you sit too close to the fourth wall, where the food is cooked and orders are taken.
Third, this place is patronized by many an Israeli, and the shopkeeper seems to know everyone who comes in and speaks the language. He's friendly and efficient to those who don't, so don't be shy about coming in. You can even watch Isreali television, which seems to consist of home-grown versions of American favorites.
Fourth, the food is not only authentic, it's good! It's better than good, it's fantastic. Falafel is not hard to make, but it is a big bother, as is making all the salady accompaniments. And if kosher means anything to you, this place would be your haven. If you're not an observant Jew or Muslim, it's good to know that "kosher/halal" is related to food cleanliness, and the ingredients are likewise "clean." Not a bad thing. Also, since meat and dairy cannot be mixed, there is very little dairy here (they do serve meat), which is probably better for most of us.
We tried a variety of things, but decided to go with the specials on the wall. There is the oddly named vegetable cigars it's basically chopped cooked vegetables rolled up in a filo sort of pastry, then fried, like a thin eggroll. It comes with tahina sauce, which is a sesame paste based sauce. We also tried the mushroom koub'beh, which is cooked mushrooms covered in a chickpea batter and fried, also served with tahina. Both stuffed dishes are so flavorful and cost about $5 apiece and each easily serves 2 or 3 as appetizers, or you can make a nice lunch out of these for one.
For about the same amount, you can get a falafel sandwich, and it's really an amazing thing. Falafel are chickpea balls, fried in vegetable oil and served at room temperature. A pita is split an stuffed with a bunch of these balls, layered with a crunchy sliced lettuce, chopped tomato and cucumber salad and topped with hot chili paste and tahina. It's completely greaseless and vegetarian and so huge and substantial that you may have trouble finishing one! But we dare you to stop eating your way through all that crispy goodness!
For $12, you can get a platter, which includes either falafel, chicken livers, or chicken wings, along with a bit of every salad they make. The salads are really wondrous and totally worth the greater expense! This includes baba ganoush (puréed eggplant dip), humus (puréed chickpea dip), potato salad containing peas and carrots, red cabbage, cole slaw, beet salad, roasted eggplant and onion, jicama slaw, Moroccan sliced carrots, a lettuce, tomato and cucumber salad referred to as "Israeli salad," hot sauce, tahina, and extra pita bread. You can easily make two to four sandwiches with all the food on this take-out container. We get a whole bunch of falafel with our order, and all the salads are wondrous.
In fact, surprisingly, we've never had any of their meat offerings, even though the kebabs and shawarmas do look great in the cooler case, and none of us are averse to viands. They sell their salads by volume too: cup, pint, quart. We admit to taking some of these home for secret feasting late at night. They are so substantial that you'll be filled up, for sure.
You might miss it even if you're looking for it it's tucked in right next to the stairs leading up to the Long Island Railroad west-bound platform, with a florist jammed up right next door. They're actually on an extension of Continenal Avenue, just off of the much busier Austin Street, on the side of the tracks which might be considered "not as right" as the other side ... but it's worth seeking them out. It seems like they've been here forever; though we can't figure out how such wonderful young men can be totally happy working at this little kiosk space, we figure we don't much care as long as they keep doing what they're doing. It's the only place we ever go for falafel, and will even come from other parts of the city to imbibe. Just remember to get here more than an hour before Shabbat!
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