Dear American Hummus/Falafel Joint, Who Do You Think You Are?

I arrived hoping to send my taste buds on a trip to Jerusalem and Amman – where falafel is gently spiced, hummus is smooth and creamy, and pita is fluffy and warm – but what I got was something else; something entirely else.

Falafel (illustration)
Dreamstime

Dear Hummus/Falafel Place:

I get it. Life is hard in your neck of the woods. Peddling chickpeas in its various forms – hummus, falafel and all their cousins – isn’t easy in the United States. Let’s face it, despite what we like to think, with our fancy coffee shops and celebrity chef shows, we’re still the home of the deep-fried Snickers bar.

But it’s time to up our game. Middle Eastern food is having a moment. From Hillary’s love of Sabra, to the flashy new hummus joints in major cities (I’m looking at you, Dizengoff and Little Sesame) – it’s time for you, everyday falafel place, to up your game.

You see, everyday falafel place, you were a light in my darkened, pita-less tunnel. I had been cheated on by other joints before. There was the fancy restaurant that offered this delicious, Middle Eastern delight, but then served me broccoli – yes, broccoli – in a pita. And then there was the place that asked if I wanted mayonnaise on my falafel. Gross.  

But you, everyday falafel place, you broke my heart more than the others. 

From the way my friends had raved about you, I arrived thinking I’d find pillowy pita stuffed with deep fried bits of cumin-scented mashed-chickpea deliciousness – but, alas, no: what I received were hard rocks of mystery spice. The hummus? More like a thick, gooey chickpea paste than a whipped wonder.

And that shawarma. You should be ashamed of yourself. I’ve never seen a drier, more unappealing hunk of meat – and that includes that time I almost burned down my kitchen because I forgot the chicken in the oven.

Worst of all – the pricing! Did you think that charging an additional $1 for a pita to dip into the hummus was reasonable? And how could you charge me for pickles? It was like I had walked into a tourist trap in a dodgy Middle Eastern market – but I was in the States!

Not to mention the atmosphere. I had expected to be reminded of some of the Middle East’s greatest cities – Jerusalem, Cairo, Amman. I had imagined a Washington, D.C.-based Hashem – the falafel place I visited in Jordan that served beautiful, fluffy pita, served on a platter with the best falafel of my life – golden brown and crisp on the outside, soft, fragrant and bright green on the inside – while I listened to locals debating the best routes to get home during rush hour. I had imagined biting into fresh ta'amia, or Egyptian falafel made with fava sbeans, in Tahrir Square, with the buzz of thousands of people walking the streets and the cars whirring by.  But instead, I got florescent lights and Jewish Americans telling stories about their recent Birthright trip. Whomp whomp.

The final straw came when you handed me the falafel and pita and asked me to stuff it on my own at the salad bar. Apologies for the mess I made when my jaw hit the floor. You see, the reason I came here was because, despite this diatribe, I need your help. I simply enjoy too many of the salads to reasonably fit them into a pita. There's the cabbage, the eggplant, the cucumber and tomatoes, the hummus, the sauces and the French fries. How am I supposed to handle them all without your expert advice? I am, after all, a measly woman with scrawny arms. 

Serve it on a platter, like Hashem, that’s fine. But when you leave me without a faithful Sherpa to guide me up the mountain of salads, I make fatal errors in judgement. I shove the falafel balls at the bottom of the pita, where they get squashed. I then layer the cabbage, salads, eggplant and French fries – only to have my rock-hard pita split in half. That's when I resign. Only to face the epic quest of eating said pita. And oh, the mess. I emerge, haggard from the challenge, weary eyes examining the disaster left lying on my plate.

Without you, dear falafel shop owner, I have made a mess of things. Why weren’t you there, there to tell me to layer the salads – and to leave the French fries alone, for Pete’s sake, on the side? Why weren’t you there to tell me that less is more, and that I really don't need that much eggplant?!

Please, let’s try this again. When you learn how to make falafel like a Mideasterner, hummus that's smooth, not stubbly, when you start charging reasonable prices for what is, after all, a street food, and when you offer some expert advice, I’ll be there. But for the time being, I have no choice but to resort to my fried Snickers bar. 

Yael Miller lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband and son.