Full of Falafel

Exploring a Cultural Café

By 10:15 a.m. on Monday, I had learned a few things.  That morning my father and I walked into the Mediterranean restaurant only a few minutes after its 10 a.m. opening.  We were the only customers; the only employee we saw stood behind a glass counter, his hands a flurry of action — shaping scoops of a green mash into fritters about the size and shape of meatballs.  I watched him work for a few minutes before I realized I was seeing the restaurant’s namesake fare.

Before my first visit to the Falafel Café, on 19th Street South in Downtown Birmingham, I had no idea what a falafel was; I assumed it was some kind of French pastry.  That tells you how much I know about international cuisine.  I later found out that falafel is actually a deep-fried ball of mashed chickpeas— similar in texture to a hushpuppy.  Chickpeas are also found in hummus, however the ground chickpeas in falafel are green because they are picked from the vine early.  The falafel comes out tasting earthy, fresh and savory with a crisp layer on the outside.

My father and I introduced ourselves, and the man identified himself as Moses Hassan, the owner of the Falafel Café: a small restaurant with that serves delicious Mediterranean food.  The menu was loaded with different types of meats, dips, sides— and of course, falafel.  We watched him expertly strip the chicken and lamb meat away from a broiler and arrange it on our plates.  Every menu item was looking incredibly fresh and colorfully laid out behind the glass in front of us.  The first item we had to choose served as a base for the meat; it was the option of rice with lentils or rice without lentils.  I chose lentils because I did not even know what lentils were, and they looked delicious (plus one of my favorite songs is called “Lentil” by Sia).  As Moses loaded our plates, I asked if I could interview him briefly.  Moses was hesitant, but he complied.  I made it clear that I was not there to necessarily critique the food— just to give the story behind the food and the restaurant.  I asked him about the history of the restaurant and he said, “I was running the same exact restaurant in Bethlehem before I moved to America.”  He brought the authenticity of his Mediterranean food all the way to Birmingham.  Lucky us!  The restaurant quickly became a dining hotspot for workers at the nearby hospital and students at the local university.  He’s been in Birmingham for 20 years and loves owning a restaurant where he can serve quality food.

“What is the hardest part about owning a restaurant?” I asked.

Moses said, “Finding good help!  It’s hard to hire people and keep them here.”

All this was said before a young employee entered the restaurant to help Moses.  However, it looked like Moses was handling the job with such expertise that he did not need a second pair of hands behind the counter.  The rainbow of toppings behind the counter left us no choice but to inquire into the details of each.  The options included chopped salad, Jerusalem salad, red cabbage salad, sumac onions, tahini sauce, garlic sauce, shatta and pickles.  Each of the salad sides were similar but varied in spiciness.  I requested the most popular topping, and Moses graced my plate with the red cabbage salad.  We also could not pass up a plate of falafel and authentic hummus with pita bread.  When my father and I received our plates, we marveled at how colorful it looked and how fresh it smelled.  We had so many different foods in front of us; it was hard to know where to start.  Since the restaurant is called the Falafel Café, we insisted on beginning with our first ever taste of golden brown Mediterranean hushpuppies.  Our plate of falafel was served with a delicious dipping sauce called tahini which the owner described as sesame seed paste.  The outside of the falafel was perfectly crisp, and inside of the falafel was the ground and seasoned green chickpeas.  The dipping sauce was cool and complemented the warm falafel perfectly.  Both the chicken and lamb meat were presented beautifully on the rice and lentils; the meat was perfectly cooked.  Our plate of pita bread was decidedly the sweetest tasting pita bread we have ever tasted.  The bread came with hummus that was decadently placed on the plate and decorated with paprika and a garnish.

Moses continually checked to see if we were enjoying the food, and, of course, we were.  There is so much culture around us eating to be consumed and appreciated—  who knew this tiny foreign restaurant could cater so well to our cravings?