Rules of politeness dictate that you shouldn’t talk about religion or politics with guests. In Tel Aviv, however, you can add falafel to that list. Here (and in many other cities around Israel), loyalty to the falafel man is on par with love for a sports team or a political party. Luckily there’s no shortage of good options for visitors, so try these and get in on the conversation.
At most places, falafel is the star, not the afterthought. Not so at Gina, which is not actually the name of a grandmotherly figure, but rather the nickname given to owner Yaakov Agmon as a child by his neighbors (‘Gina’ means ‘We came’ in Arabic). Gina started out as a pita palace, churning out the softest, freshest pitas. When it became clear that people were bringing their own pitas from Gina to eat at other restaurants and falafel and shawarma stands, Agmon decided that it was time to venture into the falafel business himself, and the neighbors are glad he did.
What’s happiness? That’s the question that ultimately resulted in The Happiness Joint. After studying in Europe and cooking in the best restaurants in Israel, childhood friends Bentzi Arbel and Omri Kravitz found themselves worn down by the careers they had chosen. Recalling how, as children, their respective fathers used to take them to eat falafel every Saturday, they decided to turn back to their original recipes for happiness and now serve falafel, sabich (pita filled with fried eggplant, hard-boiled egg, tahini sauce, and a mango chutney called amba), the ‘friends dish’ (a pita sandwich of salad, chickpeas, eggplant, and pickles), and a pineapple-mint juice inspired by Arbel’s childhood falafel joint in Haifa. Wrap it all up with cookies on the house.
Some Tel Avivians moan that Johnny Banin, a falafel fixture since 1955, is no longer what it used to be. Nevertheless, it’s still one of the most popular in the city and you’re in for a good, traditional treat. Banin’s isn’t one of those places with an endless salad bar. He does classic, and he does it well. Don’t miss the potatoes; instead of French fries his are big, crisp pucks. One thing that probably has changed since 1955 though is that there are now signs advertising gluten-free falafel.
Green is the key word when it comes to Hippo, full of environmental friendliness and organic and vegan ethos. Loaded with herbs, the falafel balls even match the green color scheme. At Hippo you’ll want to leave some room in your pita pocket for the salads; the assortment at the counter boasts the traditional varieties as well as some more unusual ones, such as salad studded with quinoa. Then top your pocket off with garnishes from the rotating variety at the self-service counter. Hippo also has plenty of gluten-free options. The free mint tea helps soothe a full and happy stomach.
What’s in a name? At 4 Taamim (‘four flavors’ in Hebrew), the answer is easy. Take your pick between four kinds of falafel: classic (chickpeas and spices), the slightly spicy red, green (parsley and cilantro), and sesame (filled and coated with toasted sesame seeds). Those who are indecisive can appreciate the chance to taste them all with the ‘mix’ option. The hot and crisp falafel rainbow is brightened even further by the impressive assortment of fresh salads and sauces.
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