V For Veg: Falafel in Philly takes a great leap forward

Crisp's falafel sandwiches come in a handy box that unzips for a half-size container perfect for carrying, eating or setting down.
Crisp's falafel sandwiches come in a handy box that unzips for a half-size container perfect for carrying, eating or setting down. (Vance Lehmkuhl / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 06, 2011

FALAFEL IS the original veggie fast food, and with the rising interest in plant-based eating, it's no wonder that fast-food falafel is taking over Center City.

The spiced-up chickpea-ball sandwich has been around since antiquity, and it seems like the King of Falafel cart at 16th and JFK has been around nearly as long. The options are limited, but the King's delicious falafel wraps garner long lunchtime lines. Recently, though, fast-food falafel storefronts are challenging the King with their own fanciful takes on the pocket meal.

Mama's Vegetarian (18 S. 20th St.) has been around since 2005, a kosher falafel joint with a basic pita sandwich for $6 or a half-sandwich for $3.50. This size, about equivalent to the similarly priced King of Falafel offering, is often plenty for lunch, especially including a heapin' helping from the pickled veggies bar.

The new surge in fast-food falafel with more varieties was kicked off by Maoz, an international chain, with one store (248 South St.) opening in 2007 and another at (1115 Walnut St.) a year later. The basic sandwich with hummus is $5.73, but the hook here is the condiments bar: Dress it up with your choice of toppings, some obvious - tomato, onion, cucumbers, salsa - and others more offbeat, like the grilled broccoli and cauliflower.

There's a Maoz right on Times Square, and to compare, I checked it out. I noticed two things: The falafel and especially the pita were even fresher than our Philly stores' seem to be (ascribable to the ginormous volume of foot traffic there), and they had an additional topping we lack: chickpeas.

Seriously: You can get your chickpea-based falafel . . . add hummus . . . and then top it with whole chickpeas! (Then again, this makes as much sense as, say, a beef taco topped with cheese and sour cream.)

Back here we've now got Pita Pit, with a funky, organic vibe (down to the potted palms surrounding the entrance at 1601 Sansom St.) and the Falafel Bar at 1513 Chestnut. Both have a basic sandwich for around $6.

Last week saw the opening of Crisp at 32 S. 18th St., another chain restaurant out of NYC. Here falafel serves as a tabula rasa for various exotic topping combinations (on sandwiches starting about a dollar higher than the other venues). In addition to "Authentic," there's Mexican, African, Parisian versions, all with different topping combos.

Crisp looks like a treat - if a little pricey - for vegetarians, but vegans need to be alert: I tried a "Mexican," which looked vegan, but I learned that what the menu board calls "corn" contains mayonnaise. Huh?

The other places mentioned here have clearer labeling, especially Maoz, where every item has a "Vegan" and/or "Gluten Free" indication.

On the plus side, once questions are answered, Crisp's food is good and fresh-tasting, and it comes in a cute cardboard box that unzips to make a convenient and easy half-size carrier. So fun and useful, you wonder why someone didn't do it sooner. Could this be the next trend in fast-food falafel?

V-News to Use: October is this year's Vegan Month of Food, when food bloggers worldwide share veg recipes and tips in a daily frenzy. Subscribe to the "feed" at www.VeganMoFo.com.

Vance Lehmkuhl is a cartoonist, writer, musician and 10-year vegan. "V for Veg" chronicles the growing trend of plant-based eating in and around Philadelphia. Send your veg tips to VforVeg@phillynews.com and follow @V4Veg on Twitter.

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