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If there were such thing as a falafel-off, we've found two contenders

If there were such thing as a falafel-off, we've found two contenders

Over here at the Scene, we love to stir up controversy, especially in the realm of food. Like when we've pitted pizza against pizza, or burger against burger. Or when we recently threw a couple of fish tacos into the ring to duke it out over the merits of fried cod vs. grilled catfish in the traditional south-of-the-border snack.

We create these culinary clashes for several reasons. First, we like the excuse to eat lots of pizzas, burgers and fish tacos. Second, we enjoy exploring multiple interpretations of familiar foods—shadows against the refrigerator wall, as Plato might have said, had he lived in an era of white goods.

Or sometimes it just sounds like fun, as in the case of the Awful Unlawful Falafel-Off, a hypothetical battle among Middle Eastern street foods. Of course, we've never actually staged such a showdown, but if we ever do get around to an AUFO, you can bet we'll include Fattoush and Tabouli's in the competition. The falafel at these Mediterranean-themed restaurants serves as delicious bellwethers for their respective menus.

Fattoush Café

At Fattoush Café, chef-owner Mike Abraham makes his falafel from a batter of coarse-ground chickpeas, garlic, parsley, onion, cilantro, coriander and sesame seeds. Mike used to blend the chickpeas with fava beans, but (he said sheepishly, pointing to his belly) fava beans cause gas.

Using a special scoop and a small spatula, he shapes the batter into dense pyramidal globs, which he deep-fries to a golden brown. The result is a golf-ball-sized patty whose crisp, ungreasy exterior splits open to reveal a soft beige core. For the falafel sandwich ($3.99), he smashes two sizzling globes onto a piece of pita and tops the round bread with a tempered blend of tahini (sesame paste) and hot sauce. He adds a confetti of parsley and bulgar wheat, lettuce, diced tomatoes, hot peppers and a drizzle of cucumber-yogurt sauce. Then he rolls the pita into a tight cigar-shaped sandwich of nutty and creamy flavors, cool and hot temperatures, and smooth and crisp textures.

It's a process that takes a while, as Mike cooks everything himself, one falafel sandwich and gyro platter at a time. But for some reason, no one seems to mind. On our maiden voyage to the one-story storefront perched on the north bank of Charlotte, a family in front of us spontaneously broke into praise of Fattoush, which they first visited years ago when it opened a few blocks further in town on the same road. (The Abrahams also founded another Fattoush in Hendersonville, which they sold earlier this year.)

For the last four years, the couple have been delivering their repertoire of Mediterranean and Greek favorites from a wholly unself-conscious—and largely unfinished—space, outfitted with little more than an open kitchen, a handful of repurposed yellow booths and a drink fountain in the back. The gregarious Faye, Mike's wife, bemoans the condition of the store, which she calls "a mess," and says she plans to have it redecorated by December. But it's worth wondering: If the queue of devoted diners—dressed in everything from gray flannel suits to work boots—lines up so happily under a ceiling that sometimes leaks puddles onto the concrete floor, should you mess with it?

In addition to the falafel, the Abrahams serve a roster of staples, made exceptional by their freshness. Behind the counter, three vertical spits turn continually, heating two-foot stacks of marinated chicken and beef shawarma and gyro (a blend of spiced lamb and beef). Mike trims and grills all the meats to order, so every shawarma (chicken $6.99, beef $7.99) and gyro plate ($6.99) is piping hot. The various meats are available in combination platters that overflow with pita and tzatziki sauce (cucumber and yogurt), and a choice of turmeric-tinged yellow rice, salad or roasted potatoes. The unexpected potatoes served as a delicate bed for the spicy chicken shawarma, melting across the tongue and cooling the smoldering pepper of the marinade.

Meat and vegetarian samplers offer a taste of Fattoush's many delights, including kibbeh—deep-fried globes of chopped meat and bulgar wheat—and grape leaves stuffed with rice. Baba ghanoush—a purée of charbroiled eggplant—was silky and smooth, with undertones of smoke and garlic and bright hints of citrus. Hummus was also creamy and smooth, with a clean crisp tinge of lemon, and parsley-heavy tabouli added a fresh accent and welcome splash of color to the heaping plates.

Fattoush's spanakopita ($3.99) veered from the traditional phyllo pastry toward a heavy calzone. The large floppy cushion of dough bulged with wilted spinach leaves and sauteed onions. Meanwhile, the baklava was a familiar triangle of leafy pastry layered with a rich blend of walnuts and honey.

Fattoush serves lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. Catering is available.


Across town, in the pedestrian-friendly corridor of Belmont, the recently reinvented Tabouli's delivers a Mediterranean-flavored menu headlined by a very different falafel. David Mullins, a restaurant consultant who worked with new owner Amer Massad as they "gutted, demolished and rebuilt" the casual eatery this summer, credits chef Ahmad Alhal for the signature recipe. Alhal, whose father owns a falafel shop in Jordan, deep-fries a colorful blend of fresh chickpeas, parsley, green bell pepper, onion and garlic to create a deep-brown crust that bursts open with a hiss to reveal an emerald interior, like the moistest of herb-flecked Thanksgiving stuffing. The contrast of crisp shell and steaming, soft interior is accented by cool cucumber-yogurt sauce. Falafel is available as an entrée ($8.95) with basmati rice, hummus and pita, or in a sandwich ($7.95), in which the crisp patties are wrapped in pita with hummus, tahini, lettuce and tomato.

In the newly designed and vibrantly colored space, with a covered patio whose glass garage doors open onto the bustle of Belmont Boulevard, Tabouli's menu meanders from Italy to Greece and the Middle East. Prices range from $5 kids' meals of pita pizza, spaghetti and kefta (beef patties) to a $15 combination platter of chicken kabobs, gyro meat, baba ghanoush and stuffed grape leaves.

In addition to the falafel platter, we enjoyed the abundant gyro and shawarma plates (both $8.95), which spilled over with yellow basmati rice, fluffy toasted pita sections and creamy hummus. We're looking forward to trying the tabouli wraps, with a parsley-heavy bulgar salad swaddled in lettuce fronds.

The $10 lunch buffet offers a broad sample of Tabouli's cuisine with an ever-changing display of pasta, gyro, salads and dessert. There's enough falafel, gyro meat, chicken shawarma, basmati rice, pita and olive oil-drizzled hummus on the buffet to re-create the lunch platters from the menu, but there's also a smattering of Italian-influenced items such as roasted tomatoes stuffed with breadcrumbs, Italian sausage with sautéed peppers and onions, and roasted green bell peppers stuffed with ground beef and rice. Several items did not live up to the caliber of the falafel, including the fettuccine with its bland medley of squash, zucchini and sun-dried tomatoes, but the repertoire is constantly in flux as the Tabouli's team susses out the appetites of its college-heavy crowd. For 10 bucks, there's enough good food and ambiance to make Tabouli's a worthy contender in the Awful Unlawful Falafel-Off, and any number of other dining bouts.

Tabouli's serves lunch and dinner daily, with a limited menu and hookah bar available from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.


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