Sunday, October 18, 2015

Restaurant Review: Falafel Bar (Westgate Mall, San Jose)


Imagine Toddler X's dismay when he arrived at Westgate Mall last night, eager to try the new restaurant that mom and dad were so excited about, only to discover that the Fa-waffle Bar that he had envisioned (and which, I'd like to point out, is not at all a bad idea for a venture) was in fact a Falafel Bar. Chickpeas and Tahini, not maple syrup and powdered sugar. The poor little guy was crushed.

That is, of course, until he tried the falafel. And had a second bite. And a third. Tried it dipped in hummus, and in baba ghanoush. Tried it dipped in the cilantro vinaigrette. Tried the french fries dipped in the cilantro vinaigrette. Tried his finger dipped in the cilantro vinaigrette. You get the picture.

Yep, Falafel Bar won over a 3 1/2 year old who has never had any interest in falafel before, and it scored big points with Mr. X and me as well. In fact, Toddler X ate so much more than we were anticipating that we had to go back and order another plate of food. Now that says something.

Here's the scoop on Falafel Bar, which opened last week in the food court (such as it is) at Westgate Mall in San Jose:



What is it?

Falafel Bar is an aptly-named establishment that does one thing, and does it well: serving hot, fresh, delicious, made-on-site falafel, along with a bar of toppings and sides that allows each patron to put together his or her perfect falafel dish, either in pita or bowl form.

Falafel is, quite literally, the only main course on the menu -- french fries and garlic fries (which are topped with garlic and hummus) are offered as sides, but falafel stands alone in the Main Dish column. And just like at In N Out, where they've avoided chicken sandwiches and sausage biscuits and everything other fast food joints have branched into, just to focus on producing really amazing burgers, Falafel Bar's singular focus on falafel leads to what I can honestly say is the best falafel I've ever had. It is divine.

Falafel Bar is owned and operated by a young guy named Eric, whom I got a chance to chat with last night. I've followed Eric's Falafel Bar posts on Facebook for well over a year, going back to the days when Falafel Bar was located in downtown San Jose, and over the past few months when they were altogether homeless. He is as friendly and funny (check out the Facebook posts -- you'll see what I mean) a guy as you'll ever meet, and clearly dedicated to producing reasonably-priced (his quote last night: "I want high school kids to be able to afford it") and amazingly delicious falafel. He's the kind of business owner you'd like to see succeed.

What's on the menu?

If you haven't picked it up from the restaurant name or the paragraphs above, what's on the menu is -- almost exclusively -- falafel. Really really good falafel. Seriously, though, here's what the menu looks like:


To start with, you choose whether you'd like a falafel pita or a falafel bowl (which isn't really a bowl, more a small divided tray -- see my picture at the top). The falafel pita option comes with three falafel plus whatever toppings and sauces you can fit in the pita, and costs a flat charge of $6.50.

The falafel bowl is more fun, and it's what I ended up going with. For that, you choose the number of falafel you want (I chose three -- though after Toddler X powered through two of mine, I went back and ordered three more), then get to dress them with whatever sides, toppings and sauces you like. Like Yogurtland and its ilk, however, you pay by the pound, so don't go overboard with things you won't eat. The cost is $8.75/lb., and I'd guess that the average person probably fills his tray to 2/3 or 3/4 lb., and therefore ends up paying somewhere between $5.75 and $6.50. It's a lot of filling food for a very reasonable price.

Under the "Order Here" sign, you let them know your falafel order (pita or bowl, and if the latter, how many falafel) and whether you'd like french fries -- then you give them your name and step back to wait for 3 minutes, as your very own falafel are about to be created! Yep, they cook them when you order them, and you can taste the freshness with the first bite (the heat, too -- be sure to cut them open and blow on them before you serve them to a toddler!).

After they call you back up to collect your falafel, you cruise down the bar line, adding whatever toppings, sides and sauces your tummy might desire. The toppings/sides bar is fantastic, with multiple kinds of hummus, a baba ghanoush, tabbouli, and a brown rice salad, spinach, onions, olives, some spicy looking stuff and pickles. (Incidentally, the first pickles Toddler X has ever liked! I wished I'd gotten more.) Here's what the layout looks like:


Beyond the toppings/sides are sauces: tahini, harissa, cilantro vinaigrette, and ketchup, which doesn't even get its own fancy label. A glimpse:


In addition, you can order french fries, either plain or garlic fries with hummus, aioili and harissa sauce on top. Some tasty looking natural sodas round out the menu.

One thing that's not on the menu: a kids' section. Hilariously, that has been replaced by the complimentary "Bandit Special": just some silverware to steal from your parents' plates. This seemed funny when I ordered, but much less so after Toddler X did, in fact, steal half of the food from my plate (though he was not so dignified as to use silverware, when chubby little fingers would work just as well).

I have to admit, though -- and all parents know this feeling -- that while I was a bit frustrated that the falafel and sides I'd ordered for me were being consumed by him, it was exciting and gratifying to watch my 3 1/2 year old loving falafel and baba ghanoush and tabbouli (okay, he wasn't such a fan of the tabbouli) and the like. And hey, I was only a 3 minute wait away from some more delicious falafel, so no harm done. Next time, I'll order a five falafel bowl for us to split -- Bandit Special-style.

So how's the food?

What, have you not read the previous three sections? The food is fantastic, delicious, really really good. It's too yummy to be "food court" food, but I'm not going to complain -- a food court setting couldn't be more perfect for toddlers. The made-in-house falafel is served hot, crispy on the outside and softer on the inside, perfectly seasoned and yummy as can be. Both hummus offerings were right on point -- I tried the regular and my husband the jalapeno, and we were both very pleased (and we eat a lot of hummus in our family). The baba ghanoush was the best I've ever had, the tabbouli was very tasty as well (especially when you pulled it in with a bite of hummus or baba ghanoush). I'm not generally a rice salad fan, but the brown rice salad was yummy too. The pickles were delicious -- though, as I mentioned above, Toddler X really liked them too, so I didn't end up eating many.

For the sauces, again, I was pleased with everything, but wow -- the cilantro vinaigrette is outstanding! I can't think of many things I wouldn't like that on. It was this dip that lured Toddler X into trying the falafel in the first place, and it remained his favorite dip even after he tried other options. I loved it for falafel, and for the fries as well -- who needs ketchup when you have this delicacy?

The french fries were also very tasty -- fresh cut in house, and freshly cooked when you order them.

We didn't try the garlic fries or the pita option, but I plan to when we go back, and I'll update then.

Anything for those on special diets?

Why yes, there is! Everything on the menu is vegan, and the vast majority of it is gluten-free as well. Unless you're allergic to tastiness, there's something for you here.




When and where can I try this deliciousness?

Falafel Bar is located in the "food court" (which is slowly developing into one -- the addition of Falafel Bar will certainly help) at Westgate Mall on Saratoga Avenue in San Jose. Park in front of the main entrance doors, located between Smashburger and Sushi Boat, head in, and you'll find Falafel Bar on your right. There are some tables available right in the food court area, and some comfy couch-style seating throughout the mall itself.

Falafel Bar is open from 11:00 a.m. - 9:00 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and 11:00 a.m. - 7:00 p.m. on Sunday.

Anything else a toddler parent needs to know?

I imagine a lot of you are reading this and thinking, "That's wonderful that there's a new Mediterranean restaurant and all, but there's no way my 2 year old is going to try falafel!"

I get it, I really do -- I honestly didn't think Toddler X was going to eat much there myself, and I had a backup bag of snacks and a plan to go get him a hot dog from SmashBurger if it didn't work out. But we tried it and it did work out. I mean, they have ketchup -- what toddler doesn't like to dip things in ketchup? While it's not the most authentic Mediterranean condiment, if it helps introduce your toddler to falafel, then go for it. Maybe bring some crackers along so that he or she can enjoy the hummus, and definitely get your toddler some of those tasty pickles. You might be surprised to find that you, too, are heading back up to the bar to order another batch after your toddler eats half of your dinner (that Bandit Special thing again).

Westgate also makes for a very convenient evening out for a family with young kids. After enjoying your falafel dinner, you can head over to the soft play area for some climb-around time or use a week's worth of salary in quarters to entertain your toddler with all the coin-operated ride-on toys (some really, really good ones -- I think there are 50 cent, 75 cent and $1.00 options). Then, if you're like us, you can head into Target to grab one thing and emerge with 12 things (but that's another story). Food, play, and shopping, all in one trip -- a huge bonus for toddler families.

Conclusion

Falafel Bar is a very welcome addition to Westgate, and hopefully its presence will encourage the mall owners to step up their game a bit with respect to other offerings. We visited Westgate last night because of Falafel Bar, and it was a worthwhile trip. The location isn't the best, as there's not a lot of walk-by traffic inside Westgate, so I really encourage you to check out Falafel Bar and spread the word to your friends (a Facebook like and share could do wonders!) to help them get their footing. As you know, I love small, locally-owned businesses and do my best to share worthy ones with my readers, and I'd definitely put the very friendly Eric, and his wonderful Falafel Bar, way up on my list of worthy ones. I highly recommend you check it out!

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