King of Falafel offers sandwich standards like the Italian beef.
A reader called to suggest I check out the new King of Falafel outpost in the Amstar gas station at the corner of Olin Avenue and South Park Street. Thank you, reader. You had me at "gas station."
Despite what food purists say about not buying your dinner at a place that's meant to sell fuel for your car, there's something more than wizened hot dogs cooking at gas stations these days. New filling stations are being designed with built-in kitchens, and some small entrepreneurs are managing to turn out more-than-decent food in these spaces.
In a way, it's win-win -- the vendor presumably gets a break on rent, while the hungry traveler gets fed something a sight more interesting than Taco Bell or Quiznos. At the Amstar, King of Falafel occupies a bright, sunny side room, with a grill and prep area, a counter and a chair where you can wait for your food. It's definitely a takeout operation.
King of Falafel began as a restaurant on West Gilman Street about decade ago. It closed in 2010, but a food cart of the same name continued, parking at East Mifflin on the Square. This past summer, the takeout grill at the Amstar opened.
The menu is part American convenience (fried chicken and fish, burgers and cheesesteaks, etc.), part remnants of the menu from the old Gilman Street location. There are sandwiches, salads and dinners. Generally, opt for the Middle Eastern items -- although the Italian beef sandwich, with a lively hot giardiniera, is quite satisfying, especially since it comes with an order of fries. Those fries! They're salty and crispy without seeming especially greasy (though they must be), and if you find they've become too cold on the trip home, they'll crisp back up nicely in the oven.
The Philly cheesesteak tastes more like a Culver's ButterBurger than a proper cheesesteak, though that's not necessarily a bad thing, if you're not dogmatic on the subject of cheesesteak. Adding various pickles, olives, giardinieria and feta cheese, cribbed from the $3 mixed pickle side, even lends it a note of distinction.
But still, those Middle Eastern items (owner Meshel Aldaee is originally from Kuwait) are why you're here.
The falafel comes rolled in a standard pita, burrito style, and it's a pretty good version, though fans of Banzo may find that the chickpea fritter gets too mushy -- buried, as it is, inside the wrap. If you like your falafel crisp, try ordering the six-piece appetizer.
What's listed on the menu as the eggplant and potato sandwich is the same as what the King of Falafel cart calls the veggie sandwich -- an excellent blend of soft fried eggplant, french fries, lettuce, tomato and pickle, all rolled in a pita.
Another bright spot of the sandwich menu is the chicken shawarma, which comes similarly wrapped, with King of Falafel's special dressing -- a lightly lemony yogurt-based sauce, with a hint of nutmeg and chunks of tart but not-too-tart pickle. (I've also ordered the chicken kebab sandwich from the lunch special board, which seems to be exactly the same sandwich.)
The shawarma also comes in a lamb version -- it's just as good. The lamb dinner is mostly tender and quite flavorful, although at $9, it's the most expensive item on the menu (save for the 12-piece chicken basket). It comes on basmati rice, with a small salad dressed winningly with a lemony olive oil vinaigrette and a side of King of Falafel's hummus.
And the hummus is superb -- nutty, with the rich savor of good olive oil, and not a lot else to get in the way. It may be the smoothest hummus in town since the Casbah closed. My advice: Order an extra appetizer-size container for $3.
The gyro, on the other hand, is wanting. Better gyro meat comes from another gas station vendor, Trader Gus' Athens Gyros, in Westport. If you know that meat, you're not going to be happy with this version.
King of Falafel offers four or five lunch specials daily, and from those, there's a two-for-$9 deal -- two sandwiches, two fries, two drinks -- and the popularity of that offer can generate a bit of a line around noon. And there can be a short wait at any time -- everything is prepared fresh to order.
You could say King of Falafel has come down in the world from its sit-down restaurant on Gilman, or you could say it's moving back up from having only a cart. The place may be out of kibbeh (beef and bulgur meatballs), yalangi (stuffed grape leaves) or the m'hamara dip. But they're making it work, and that's something to admire.