Reader: Have you been to the new Mamoun's (300 Market St.) in Old City? I'm wondering how this New York falafel legend stacks up against Philly's other falafel spots?
Craig LaBan: Yes! I have been to the new Old City outpost of this legendary New York pioneer, which just opened its first branch in Philly last month. Mamoun's began serving falafel in Greenwich Village in 1971, and, considering my usual skepticism of out-of-town chains that land here with considerable hype, it turns out to be pretty fantastic.
We have a lot of falafel in Philly now, much of it very good. I'll get to some of those other favorites in a minute.
But Mamoun's version of the ground chickpea fritter is very traditional — the Middle Eastern street food as you know it, but perfected with a vividly herbed green center that's moist and flavorful without being too dense, and a deeply browned, craggy, deep-fried crunch on the exterior whose flavor and texture can stand up to the mountain of pickles and veggies and rivers of tahini that get drizzled on top into the overstuffed pita pocket.
The shaved lamb shawarma, by the way, is just as good, its tender meat seasoned with a Syrian spice blend that speaks to this restaurant's origins.
Of course, though Mamoun's claims to be New York's first falafel joint, it's hardly Philly's first. We have a super-cheffy version at Goldie (1526 Sansom St.) from Michael Solomonov. But although I love pretty much everything else Solo cooks at Zahav and Dizengoff, this isn't my favorite falafel.
The flavor is great. The amba sauce is awesome. And Goldie's has the best fresh-baked pitas. But the delicate fritters just don't hold up to all the fancy fixings and quickly lose their crunch. (The tahini shake, though, is worth the trip alone).
My favorite dedicated falafel shop has long been the Israeli-owned Mama's Vegetarian (18 S. 20th St.), where the falafels are super-crisp and the fresh pitas and fried eggplant rounds (my favorite add-in, along with baba ghanoush) more than compensate for the sometimes gruff service and cash-only policy.
Mamoun's is a definite competitor to Mama's crispy crown, and Mamoun's tidy new fast-casual corner spot is already humming with efficient and friendly customer service.
Philly has numerous other good falafels worth seeking. I love the flattened disc-shaped falafels from Aya's Cafe (2129 Arch St.) in Logan Square, which encrusts the exterior Egyptian-style with coriander and sesame seeds.
The Cypriot-style falafels at Kanella Grill (1001 Spruce St.) are always fresh and flavorful.
The West Bank-style falafel is a bonus at the hidden grill tucked into the back of the Liberty Choice Market in Fishtown (1939-47 N. Front St.) where I'm also a fan of the chicken kebabs.
But speaking of Fishtown, that is where you'll find one of Philly's most refined falafels, at Suraya (1528 Frankford Ave.), the sprawling Lebanese palace where chef Nick Kennedy infuses his lunchtime-only fritters with a vivid dose of cilantro, parsley, and cumin before they're delicately crisped and served inside a fresh pita alongside Suraya's fabulous spiced fries.