Long live the Falafel King

Mara Severin

I am an ex-New Yorker and ghosts of falafels-past loom large in my culinary memories. Most New Yorkers have a favorite place to grab the satisfying, Middle Eastern staple that is cheap, fast and portable. In Anchorage the options are, well, fewer. Luckily, Falafel King is among them. A tiny restaurant located on a funky strip of Gambell, its appearance is, to say the least, unassuming. But don't be fooled. Inside the little restaurant, you'll find big food with big flavor.

I dropped by recently to pick up dinner for my family of four. The menu is straightforward with four basic options -- falafel, shawarma, grilled chicken and schnitzel -- that can be ordered as a sandwich or a platter. I ordered three sandwiches to share and worried that it wouldn't be enough (I shouldn't have worried, but more on that later).

The restaurant was being "manned" by one woman -- all smiles and pleasantry while taking our orders but all business in the kitchen. We sat at one of the three tables in the tiny dining area and watched an Israeli news show on a small TV while we waited. The scent of cumin, garlic, onions and the hint of charred meat filled the air and piqued our appetites. In less than 10 minutes, a heavy, fragrant, bag was being handed over to us, and my daughters were being encouraged to help themselves to the candy basket by the cash register.

At home, I made an attempt to divide the overstuffed sandwiches but quickly gave up. We all just dug in and passed the huge sandwiches around. The first -- their specialty -- was the falafel pita ($8.99). The falafel balls were crisp and deep brown on the outside and tender on the inside with a pleasing note of garlic and a satisfying nuttiness. Fighting for space inside the pita was a salad of tomatoes, cabbage, and tart little pickles that perfectly balance the earthiness of the generous helping of tahini sauce. My children who heard me describe a falafel with suspicion were quick to dive in.

The shawarma pita ($10.99) avalanched onto the plate the minute I took it out of the bag. A huge portion of thinly sliced beef, it came with a salad similar to the falafel but with the addition of sliced raw onions it added a nice bite to the tender, savory meat. Some of the sliced meat was a bit fatty for my taste and difficult to avoid while biting into a messy, layered sandwich. But I soldiered on -- right on through the whole sandwich, in fact.

The third sandwich was the grilled chicken pita ($10.99). I requested it spicy (after being asked). The spice level was very minimal -- just a slow heat that visited my tongue after each bite -- it was mild enough for even my pickiest daughter. The generous helping of bite-size chicken was cooked with an abundance of caramelized onions that brought a beautiful sweetness to the dish. I was pleased that, despite the similarity in presentation, all three sandwiches had a distinct flavor and personality.

Despite our best efforts, we had leftovers. Because the sandwiches are so packed, juicy and saucy, the leftovers were inedible after only a few hours in the fridge.

Soggy pitas transformed our sandwiches into piles of glop (though enterprising fingers picked out the remaining good stuff).

For my next visit, I decided to order platter style entrees that come with three salad-choices on the side and a pita. I ordered extra pitas on the side (five for $6.25).

It was a good choice allowing us to build our sandwiches according to taste and making more manageable leftovers (not that there were many). The falafel platter ($11.99) comes with 10 falafel balls and the shawarma platter comes with a generous quantity of meat ($13.99).

This is a great option for those who are inclined to share. Though, to be honest, after a couple of delicious Falafel King meals, I'm feeling less inclined to share.

Falafel King serves fresh, authentic, lovingly prepared, Middle Eastern cuisine at reasonable prices. Once again, I have a favorite falafel joint. So I'll be planning future trips instead of remembering falafels-past.

Daily News correspondent