Rue de Rosiers in the Le Marais district of Paris hosts what I like to call the Falafel Thunderdome: many falafels enter, one falafel leaves in my tummy. A dreamland for the vegetarian in Paris, street boasts at least four Israeli-style falafel joints within a block of one another. This would have been overwhelming if not for the recent news that Tom Douglas would be opening his own falafel place in Seattle after falling in love with the Mark Bittman-praised L'as du Falafel. I knew where I had to go first.
Despite the national attention since Bittman's review in 2006, the price for a falafel is similar to that of the neighboring places (€5.50, or about $7), and they still draw in customers the old-fashioned way: the cashier doubles as a hype man, encouraging those stumbling down the block to wait in the L'as du Falafel line as opposed to getting immediate service at one of the less popular places. From what I have seen, they usually oblige.
Rue de Rosiers is the perfect street for a falafel place to rise to prominence: a main drag of the Pletzl ("Little Place" in Yiddish), Rosiers is a hub of the Parisian Orthodox Jewish community, with two synagogues on the three-block street in addition to all the falafel. But Le Marais has recently risen to prominence as a party zone, filled with trendy clubs and gay bars: conditions are perfect for messy, greasy street food. Israeli falafel in Paris is a particularly messy venture. Previously accustomed to the efficient wraps served by local Middle Eastern eateries, I at first made the mistake of thinking I could hole up in my hotel room after getting one to go; this is, by far, not the case. Your mouth is racing with the street over who gets your harissa and tahini-soaked falafel, eggplant, cucumber and cabbage as soon as it's handed to you. Sometimes the street wins. It comes in a funnel-like wrap, but is served with a fork, which only sometimes helps.
So what made this place in particular the go-to, when certainly any of the surrounding places without the gigantic line could get you a perfectly adequate, alcohol-absorbing wrap much faster? What has made these American food titans such as Bittman and Douglas (and hundreds of Yelp reviewers) so universally in awe?
Here's how L'as du Falafel works: you get in the queue and are immediately asked for your order by the roaming cashier/hype man, who gives you your change and a receipt with your order marked, as shown:
Then when you get to the front of the line, one of the cooks spoons some raw dough from a heaping bowl next to the deep-fryer, then swiftly assembles your sandwich fresh out of the oil. They ask you how spicy you want it, then place it carefully in your hand so it will not collapse. Then they hand you a fork, which does not keep the falafel from getting all over your face, and a single napkin.
This is also the perfect balance in a falafel, layered with perfectly-textured eggplant and sauce to maximize the depth of each bite. The falafel itself is juicy, not falling victim to the all-too-common hasty, dry falafel that all too often comes when served too quickly. This is not a slight to the surrounding falafels, which are also delicious, and perhaps have a better bedside manner: L'as du Falafel is just in a whole other league.
A falafel place even vaguely resembling this will be such a worthy addition to Seattle's Downtown landscape. I have never had anything even close to this good stateside. I leave Paris today with the strongest hopes in my heart that I will have a favorite falafel at home soon, as well.