Take a walk down to Zuccotti Park and try and ignore the line of vendors hawking their wares along the southern curb. Amidst the hordes of tourists hauling overpacked Century 21 shopping bags and overworked stockbrokers getting in a game of chess or two minutes of downtime in the shade, are the smells of NYC at its best: roasted lamb, Jamaican patties, dirty water dogs, and yes even the b.o. of the guy trying to sell you yet another I ♥ NY t-shirt. But if you look close enough you will see that though all the carts have the occasional lookie loo or even customer, only one has a line stretching half-way through the park, all the way up to Broadway. That one cart belongs to Sam Emad, hailing originally from Egypt (now with a simpler commute from Astoria), and he is truly the Falafel King of Lower Manhattan. For the past 16 years he has been peddling his wares at a recession-proof $3 a sandwich and $5 a platter, it is by far the cheapest and healthiest lunch on offer south of Chambers (he began his career on the corner of Liberty and Broadway). From noon to “whenever he runs out” Sam and his assistants fill pitas in with a rapid, machine-like precision. Using mashed fava beans instead of chickpeas as the main ingredient for his famous patties (the traditional Egyptian style) may be the secret to his success. Of course, ask just about any falafel enthusiast and they will tell you that once its fried you can’t tell the difference between chickpeas and fava beans… but something is making Sam’s falafel stand a head above the rest.
On a recent Friday a tourist approached me while I was in line and asked why everyone was willing to wait when there were so many other falafel vendors within 20 feet. As it is considered bad form to speak to tourists I simply raised an eyebrow and waited for him to get there on his own. “It’s really that much better?” I smiled and went back to my book (the wait can be 10/15 minutes so bring something to keep busy). I watched him browse the selections at a nearby cart… and then he fell into place behind me.
If you are a lover of falafel, but are looking for a more traditional restaurant setting, then perhaps you should take a look at Alfanoose. Located just east of Broadway on Maiden Lane, Alfanoose offers an authentic Lebanese take on the falafel meal. Owned by Mohammed Shami, a day does not go by that Alfanoose’s line does not stretch the entire length of its store. “The main thing is the people. So great. So supportive”, says Shami. And that support has been indispensable. Opening in 1999 at 150 Fulton Street, Shami had to move the store when construction on the Fulton Street Transit Hub began in 2004. That’s a tight decade that Alfanoose has been rolling pita for the downtown crowd.
Though most people will go for the sandwich, I couldn’t improve on Alfanoose’s falafel platter. Eight large and perfectly delicious falafel balls nestle in a pool of tahini and hot sauce in one corner of your plate. In another you will find your salad and hummus. Across the other half of your plate you will find a heaping pile of Mojadara. For those of you new to the Lebanese style, Mojadara is made from cracked-wheat and lentil and can be mixed with tomato, rice or red pepper. Top that with some fried onions and pickled beets (ask for extra!) and I dare you to walk away hungry. Buyer beware, Alfanoose’s deliciousness does not come cheaply (there are no $3 sandwiches here). The platter will run you $10 and a sandwich will cost $5.75, but every bite makes it worth the price. Take it back to the office, or sit at one of the communal tables to enjoy this rare downtown treat.
Alfanoose and Sam’s Falafel may be at opposite ends of the spectrum, but both are among the highest quality Middle Eastern fare in the city today.