Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Ali Baba: The One

I’d resided in Chevy Chase for five months and had yet to fall in love with any of the local restaurants. And like Drew Barrymore’s character in Never Been Kissed, I was worried that I would have to kiss a whole lot of losers to find the right one.

As with so many great romances, I found Ali Baba, the new falafel stand on Wisconsin Avenue, in unlikely circumstances: driving home from dinner on a full stomach. But when you see a new falafel place a mile from your apartment, and you’re starved for love, you don’t make excuses. You slam on the brakes and pull over.

“All bias is a form of corruption,” writes food critic Trevor White in his book Kitchen Con. Still, I couldn’t help wanting to like Ali Baba from the start.

The ambiance is cute and comfortable like a well-worn pair of jeans. In front of the stand is a modest, wooden porch, where you have the choice of a few lawn chairs to relax while your food is prepared. Bright green, baby parakeets sunbathe in their cage and look at you thoughtfully as you order.

And what’s cozier than an elderly husband and wife management team? No, the two owners aren’t an old married couple, but they reminded me of one. As I waited for my falafel, they bickered to pass the time. One owner, Mohamed, repeatedly yelled in a thick Egyptian accent, “What is burning? Something is burning!” The other, Nordin, from Algeria, answered, “Nothing! What are you talking about?”

I can be no more objective about Ali Baba than I could be about a puppy licking my face.

But Ali Baba’s appeal goes beyond cuteness: it’s the classic underdog. For years before opening the falafel stand, Mohamed and Nordin ran a struggling antique shop. They had long dreamed of opening Ali Baba, but Montgomery County doesn’t like food stands. Mohamed had to argue in front of the County planning board before they finally approved the proposal.

Of course, Ali Baba must do much more than jump in the ring if they want to be crowned heavyweight falafel champion. The duo will have to endure a bruising bout against bigger opponents just to survive. Apollo Creed is five minutes away: Lebanese Taverna, whose falafel is popular throughout the region, recently won People’s Favorite Restaurant of the Year award. And, in Rockville, it’s Drago: an Israeli joint called Moti’s Falafel Stand has become increasingly popular since opening a couple years ago.

If that weren't enough, it’s been over a decade since Mohamed and Nordin managed their last falafel stand, and that was in Paris. The birds are nice and all, but I had to wonder, do they really remember how to fry their chickpeas?

I settled into a lawn chair and took a bite. Sparks flew.

Over the next two weeks, I went back for half-a-dozen trysts, and I was almost ready for a serious relationship. But I had to know if my love was real. So I decided to test out some other suitors. Here’s how Moti’s and Lebanese Taverna compared:

Ali Baba

Personality: A+. As the fava beans and chickpeas sizzle behind the counter, Mohamed and Nordin hold forth on topics ranging from the economy to Obama’s popularity in their home countries. But conversation isn’t all that they volunteer. As we talk, Nordin usually gives me a few falafel balls with tahini, and it’s not uncommon for him to pack my takeout bag with an Algerian side-dish, on the house. The one downside to all this hospitality? They make me feel so at ease that, twice, I forgot to pay.

Nordin also shows off a big pair of falafel balls when talking smack about Ali Baba’s formidable competition. He claims he doesn’t even remember the name of “the place around the corner,” Lebanese Taverna. And he’s equally brassy when I ask about Moti’s. “The Jew?” he asks, incredulously. Middle Eastern countries with a proud history of falafels look at Israel’s version like the movie remake of Planet of the Apes: the late-coming bastardization of a classic. To Nordin, Moti might as well be Helena Bonham Carter in a chimp suit.

Falafel: A-. Ask Ali Baba about their falafel, and they won’t just say it’s good. They’ll tell you it’s “right.” In other words, Mohamed tells me, they base it on the style found in Egypt.

To make the falafel balls, they mash fava beans and chickpeas with a special ingredient. “What is the one that looks like parsley?” Mohamed asks. He might forget the English word for cilantro, but this North African herb makes Ali Baba’s fritter one to remember, giving it a green hew and a unique, citrusy kick.
The next step is apparently a difficult one to remember. Mohamed's mom calls from Egypt once a week just to remind her son to add eggs and carbonation, which make the balls moist and fluffy. Then they're then fried and thrown into a pita along with tahini, chopped tomatoes, and finely sliced banana peppers and cucumbers. Nordin usually gives me a side of pickled vegetables – the salty burst pairs well with the slightly bitter tahini.

When I was enjoying Ali Baba’s falafel for the first time, I closed my eyes and imagined my lawn chair perched on a sparsely inhabited river bank along the Nile some 1,000 years ago. That’s when historians say the Egyptians invented it. The only problem is that everything I’ve read suggests that the Egyptian fritter is made with 100 percent fava beans. No chickpeas. So, painful as it is, I have to deduct some authenticity points from Ali Baba. Even puppies get yelled at when they pee on the carpet.

Eatability: A. Ali Baba creates a neat package by stuffing their pitas with a mixture of falafel balls and toppings. By contrast, other falafel places let you pick from a bunch of toppings and then crown your pita with Israeli salad, chopped onions, peppers, and even eggplant. It’s fun to play dress-up with my falafel like this, but the more ornaments you hang on your Christmas tree, the harder it is to take down. Ali Baba’s pita is wrapped securely so loose toppings don’t cascade from the falafel with every bite.

Supporting Cast: A. When I first approached his stand, I asked Mohamed to recommend something to go with my falafel. His answer almost sent me scurrying away like fingernails on a chalkboard: “How about the hamburger?”

If you can work around the owners’ perception that Americans crave Fuddruckers in every eating experience, you’ll discover some classic Egyptian street food. Ask Mohamed to make you his tahini dog: tomatoes, fava beans, chickpeas, and lettuce tossed in tahini and cayenne pepper and served in a hot dog bun.

Moti’s Falafel Stand

Personality: B-. I came to Moti’s with more questions than a star trek geek in a sex ed class. Did Israel steal the falafel from Lebanon and Egypt? If so, should they really call it “Isreal’s National Snack”? Is it true that Israelis stuff their falafels with French fries?

The teenager behind the counter was swarthy, spoke broken English, and cranked out a falafel like most people tie their shoes. I identified him as Moti’s son and peppered him with falafel queries. He provided some interesting answers, which I won’t include in this post because after a ten-minute conversation he admitted that he is Salvadorian, his closest tie to Israel is that he thinks Natalie Portman is hot, and all his thoughts about falafels are creative guesses. Moti, he said, is never there.

Falafel: B. Marcy only spent one semester in Israel during college, but with the Salvadorian kid disqualified, I resorted to her as my Israeli falafel expert. We both thought that the taste of the falafel fritter was fine, but the fried surface was oddly tough and perhaps a little burnt.

Eatability: C+. Moti’s gives you a wide selection of toppings. This is Israel’s most notable contribution to the evolution of the falafel: they cram novel accompaniments, from shredded beets to jalapenos, into their pitas. But because you place all the toppings at the mouth of the pita, they aren’t evenly distributed. So your first few bites are all topping, and the rest of the sandwich is plain fritter and tahini. The next time I go to Papa Johns, I’m bringing an Israeli with me to see if he downs all the pepperonis before turning to the pizza.

Supporting Cast: C. The first time I went to Moti’s, I was excited to see that they offer a Jerusalem Mix with chicken liver. But my Salvadorian friend always shrugs when I order it. Like Moti himself, it’s never available.

Lebanese Taverna

Personality: B-. At Lebanese Taverna, all the elements of a restaurant with great personality are in place: the Abi-Najm family that started Lebanese Taverna fled civil war in Lebanon in 1976 with their five small children and found themselves without support in a foreign land. They had so little money when they took over an Arlington pizzeria that they could only afford to alter half the sign that hung outside. Fast-forward three decades, and Taverna has become a mini-empire with 10 locations across Virginia, D.C. and Maryland.

When I went to the D.C. location, I imagined that the wizened matriarch of the Abj-Najm family would greet me at the door with riveting tales of escape from a war-ravaged land. During her arduous journey to America, she would tell me, all she had to keep herself alive were four falafel balls – made with the same exact recipe that Taverna uses to this day.

Instead, I didn’t see a single member of the Abj-Najm clan. I guess if your restaurant is successful, you earn the luxury of never having to go there.

Falafel: C. The mezze dish consisted of four small falafel balls, served with one tiny cup of tahini and about a pound of pita bread. This ratio of balls to pita to sauce worked well as long as I used half a falafel ball and three drops of tahini for each pita.

As for the falafel, I give Taverna credit for following the traditional Lebanese approach of using a combination of fava beans and chickpeas. Unfortunately, spices were undetectable. And the fava beans gave the fritter a dry, sticky consistency. What will it take for Taverna to add egg or baking soda to lighten the fritter? Does Mohamed's mother need to provide weekly reminders?

Eatability: N/A. With a falafel this dry and plain, who cares?

Supporting Cast: B-. A side dish of tomato, chickpea, and pilaf reminded me of Ali Baba’s tahini dog, but it wasn’t as good.

My route to both Lebanese Taverna and Moti’s took me right past Ali Baba, and it was painful to have to drive by without stopping, especially when there were no customers. But I’m happy to report that my falafel philandering ways are over. Ali Baba is the one. Now I just need a little help from you to keep her alive:

Ali Baba
Open every day for lunch and dinner
Corner of Wisconsin Ave & Willow Lane
Bethesda, MD


  1. Ali Baba is open EVERY day for lunch and dinner? Hmmm, she seems a little easy to me...

  2. Haha ... sometimes easy does it.

    I learned today that Mohamed's last name is Elrafal - and he didn't name his stand Elrafal's Falafel?