It’s a sunny Wednesday afternoon on Beirut’s Beshara al-Khoury Steet, and Falafel Abu al-Ziz is completely empty. After a few minutes the only employee working that day emerges from the back room.
A thin, clean-shaven Egyptian man in his early 20s, Tarek Sleiman wears a wide smile as he hands over a falafel ball to sample. The outside is crisp, but not hard, and it’s center is light and fluffy. It’s not dry, but not too oily either.
“After they eat here for the first time, people come back,” Sleiman said, admitting that business has been slow since the shop opened less than a year ago.
Unfortunately for him, most people looking to get their falafel fix are loyalists, and can be found crowding one of the two Sahyouns just a couple shops down the street. Others are at Tabboush, a few more shops down. As for the Armenians, you can find them at Arax.
The shops are concentrated on a short, island-resembling block facing east Beirut that acts as a kind of barrier, separating upscale Monnot on one side from the Amal heartland of Bashoura on the other.
In the warring years, the street was part of the Green Line that divided the capital between east and west. But to the younger crowd today, it’s mostly just known as that one street with all the falafel places between Sodeco and Downtown.
Until a few weeks ago there was a sixth option: Just Falafel, a global chain with a trendy look, and the only one on the block that uses Twitter. But social media couldn’t save it, and for undisclosed reasons the company shuttered all its shops in Lebanon last month after about a two-year stint in the country.
But it’s not like the competition was losing any sleep every time a new falafel shop opened.
“No one can get in your way. Even if 100 places opened, I would welcome them,” said Zuheir Sahyoun, owner of the renowned Mustafa Sahyoun Falafel, named after his father, who opened the shop in the 1930s.
Next door to him is also a Mustafa Sahyoun Falafel, opened by Zuheir’s brother and former partner, Fuad, about eight years ago after the two had a falling out.
“I don’t have any business with anyone else on this street,” Fuad said. “I come in the morning, do my work, and leave.”
At their peak hours, both shops sell more falafel than they can fry. Customers gloat that they bring their friends from America and Europe to try their sandwiches. One man in a suit said he’s been eating at Sahyoun since 1975, when the original shop had temporarily relocated because of the war.
“I prefer older customers because they know what they are eating. The young just want something cheap to fill their bellies,” Fuad said. “This is vegetarian. It’s healthy.”
But the truth over the health benefits of falafel is more complicated. Made from mashed chickpeas or fava beans, mixed with spices and deep fried, falafel is high in fat, calories and sodium.
The good news is that falafel is also high in soluble fiber, which helps lower cholesterol. And for a population wary over the contaminated food scandal that erupted last week when dozens of shops were revealed to be selling contaminated meat and chicken, falafel looks to be a safer, and certainly more humane, alternative to livestock.
On the other side of Zuheir’s shop is Arax, the only falafel place that also sells meat sandwiches. It’s managed by Vrej Heybelian, who said it opened about two years ago with half its sales being falafel, and the other half shawarma.
A short man in his 50s walked in with two construction workers and ordered them each a falafel. When asked why he chose Arax over one of the others, Abu Garo explained bluntly: “Because it’s Armenian.”
But to its credit, Arax offered the largest portions. The sandwiches were stuffed with the desired vegetables, or French fries by request, and liberal amounts of tarator and hot sauce.
At the farthest end of the street, close to Downtown, is Falafel Tabboush, owned by Fawaz, the founder’s son. It was opened in 1956, Fawaz explained. Like the others, he was unconcerned with competition, insisting that there will always be a market for falafel. “Falafel is for everyone,” he said. “It’s for the old and the young, the rich and the poor. Lebanese, foreigners, Arabs.”
A man driving a delivery truck popped his head out the window to shout his order: One sandwich and a Pepsi. Tabboush got to work while the driver took his vehicle around the block.
“Our ancestors have been making falafel before our time. The Israelis say they invented it, but we are the proof that they didn’t.”
By Marc Abizeid
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