Haaretz’s assignments editor called last week with an urgent request: McDonald’s Israel had just debuted its line of pita-based meals, with a star at the center – the Mini Pita Falafel. The readers must know if it’s worthy, and the task requires a real American, someone with the cultural knowledge necessary to deeply understand the gravity of it.
What he did not know was that he was talking to a woman who had just returned from McDonald’s only hours earlier; a woman for whom McNuggets form the base of the food pyramid.
Like many Diaspora Jews who grew up in observant households, I saw McDonald’s as a symbol of the core of American identity from which I was excluded. As a child, I pined for the toys and perpetually sticky PlayPlaces at my local branch. And even if I didn’t particularly yearn for the nonkosher cheeseburgers and nuggets, I wanted the experience of carrying a little red Happy Meal box, just like the kids on TV.
My parents obliged the best they could. They ordered me patty-less cheeseburgers from confused drive-through employees. “You want a cheese sandwich with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, ketchup and mustard?” they would ask. “Yes, exactly that,” my mom would reply.
Until I grew out of condiment-and-cheese sandwiches, it was the closest a Syrian-Jewish child from New Jersey could get to assimilation: Never complete, but if an outsider weren’t looking closely, they wouldn’t know the difference.
When I arrived in Israel for the first time at age 19, the country’s kosher McDonald’s chain became a new symbol. As I carried my first-ever tray of McNuggets to a grimy table at a Tel Aviv mall, I realized that I could eat every single item in the kosher food court. In America, those who keep kosher and halal are rarely even an afterthought; in many parts of Israel, they are the standard around which food revolves.
My first McNugget was a euphoric experience. It is the only milestone listed on my Facebook timeline. It was unlike anything I had ever tasted, and from that day I was hooked.
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What McDonald’s does best is molecular gastronomy for the common man. If a Michelin-starred restaurant serves foie gras foam in a 3D-printed cage of reconstituted gingered polenta, you would not go there expecting grandma’s chicken roast. McDonald’s is no different. It took the picky toddler staple that is the chicken nugget, distilled it into a fluffy, umami essence wrapped in a thin, dry, golden shell, and told us that it was a bird once. That is science. That is art. You do not go to McDonald’s because you want a hamburger; you go because you want a Big Mac.
With this in mind, I enlisted my Haaretz colleague and fellow American Shachar May, and set out to McDonald’s Rothschild Boulevard branch – for my second day in a row – to try its newest, Israel-exclusive offering: the Mini Pita Falafel. It has two cousins, the Mini Pita Kebab and Mini Pita Crispy Chicken.
McDonald’s is famous for adjusting its menu to suit local tastes; tourists in India rave about the chain’s paneer burgers, for instance, but this is its first Israeli foray into pitas. (There was one previous attempt to introduce falafel into McDonald’s a decade ago, in a lafa wrap, but that did not end well.)
Part of the draw of a non-McDonald’s falafel is the customizability. Even well-spiced falafel balls carry a hearty, savory blandness that are elevated by a range of salads and sauces. Choosing your vinegary pickled cabbages and hot peppers, crisp diced cucumbers and tomatoes, earthy tahini and dollop of spicy schug – all stuffed into a fluffy pita – make the beloved street food what it is.
This aspect is conspicuously absent from the Mini Pita Falafel, which, yes, only comes in mini size. Only after adding it to your digital tray can you change the contents of the pita – and only if you seek it out. The standard version, without playing with it, comes with lettuce, tomato slices, pickles and tahini.
If you’re brave and hate your dining partner, you can also add red onions, or upgrade to the spicy version by adding “spicy royal sauce” (technically making it a Spicy Mini Falafel, which is a separate menu item for the same price).
It costs 12 shekels ($3.65), which is more or less standard for a full-sized falafel but on the steep side for a mini-falafel from a dignified street stand. The same options are available for the Mini Pita Kebab, which costs 14 shekels – cheaper than average, but still teeny. Our branch did not offer the Mini Pita Crispy Chicken.
The manager refused to speak to me, and looked like she was ready to fight me physically if I wanted any information.
It is served on the tray in paper bags, just like at a real falafel stand, with a small cup of tahini on the side. The pita is indeed mini and fits in the palm of an adult-sized hand. The consistency of the bread itself is a bit crumbly; it does have a pita taste, but is dry and bland – much like the pitas you get from American grocery stores.
The five falafel balls (generous!) are crammed into the tiny pocket. Biting into one reveals a bland, old-oil flavor. It is heavy and burdensome. It has green innards, which implies that it is herbed, but the taste suggests otherwise, and makes you feel like you are being gaslit by McDonald’s. It tastes fried, which, God bless America, is one of my favorite flavors – but not in a good way. It is a ball of green, alleged chickpea mush, but it tastes like beige.
At this point, I realize they have not given us napkins for any of our orders, nor are there napkins on the tables. While McDonald’s is allowed to make food mistakes, we are not.
Shachar’s kebab tastes kebaby. It has a smoky, meaty flavor that lingers a bit too long on the palate, and a puzzlingly chewy consistency. It is flat, like a hash brown. “It has these nuggets of chewy Styrofoam inside,” Shachar says, “to give you a kebab-fat feeling. Like gristle.” The experience suggests less kebab and more soy-based vegan kebab substitute that is doing amazing. The spicy sauce is “like a tickle,” she says, but is a positive addition.
The tahini is tahini, which is the best thing either of us could say about the entire meal. In both pita pockets, the “salads” (or leftover hamburger fixings hastily stuffed into the bottom of the bread) exist but contribute nothing, like your roommate’s boyfriend.
All in all, the falafel meal tastes like if someone who hates falafel explained falafel to someone who’d never had falafel before, but went on to make falafel from scratch based on that description. It tastes like a punishment. I tell Shachar it is something you purchase when you realize you have said something racist. She agrees: “This is the meal you get after you accidentally make your mom cry.”
“I skipped breakfast for this,” Shachar says while gazing mournfully at her Mini Pita Kebab, and gets herself a McNugget chaser.
As someone who used to work in marketing, I have been paid to do worse things than eat a Mini Pita Falafel. But I wouldn’t recommend it to any human person, unless I really hate them.
For the same price, go to literally any street in Israel and get a falafel from an old man with four teeth, or from a young man who is always shouting. Falafel is made to be authentic, crafted from recipes carried by the Jews of Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, Lebanon and other states, and from the Palestinians keeping traditions alive. McDonald’s should also keep its traditions alive, and never stray from its delicious path of mechanically separated animal by-product.