The provenance of falafel is uncontested; it came from Egypt. After that, everything seems to be an argument. The surprisingly contentious culinary and cultural disagreements about the popular fritter have largely happened outside the awareness of average diners who aren’t connected by birth or marriage to Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, or Egypt.
The original recipes relied on fava beans, but as the dish moved north, the ingredients changed. Like many cultural staples and street foods, the composition of falafel varies from region to region and family to family. Popular spices and local ingredient availability inevitably affected individual recipes, so as it moved north, chickpeas became the dominant base ingredient. The standard herbs and spices also vary, but cilantro, dill, parsley, cumin, and coriander appear often, as do garlic and onion.
The versatility of falafel has contributed to its ubiquity in North Africa and the Levant, as well as Oklahoma. Since it works as a sandwich, wrap, appetizer, or part of a salad like fattoush—and because it’s hearty based on high levels of protein and carbohydrates—it appears on menus frequently in multiple categories, and it’s a popular street food and family favorite wherever it ends up.
Falafel arrived in Oklahoma with Lebanese immigrants before statehood, and because Lebanese food is truly Oklahoma food, falafel is a favorite and staple all over the state. Every “Mediterranean” restaurant offers it in some form, and chickpeas remain the popular choice of base. The styles range from very crunchy exteriors like you’ll find at Oozie Mediterranean Restaurant (really, it’s traditional Lebanese cuisine) to softer, more moisture-laden fritters like the ones at Mediterranean Imports, Deli and Gastro Goods.
- Mediterranean Imports & Deli: Central to the success of what is easily one of the best falafels in Oklahoma City is Nick Toledo. “Nick has been making falafel at Med Deli for 25 years,” Dowd said. “When we assumed operations here, we knew that we wouldn’t need to worry about consistency if Nick was in the kitchen. I just added a little salt and aleppo pepper to the original recipe, and that was the only minor tweak we made to it.” Dowd stuck to the original 80/20 recipe of chickpeas to fava beans. “The fava beans add a little creaminess, and it keeps the falafel from becoming too dense, which can happen with 100-percent chickpeas,” she said.
- Oozie Mediterranean Restaurant: Oozie’s Lebanese style is popular with locals who also love the perfect hushpuppy: light, crunchy exterior and a soft, savory interior with plenty of moisture. Nobody likes dry hushpuppies; same rule applies to falafel. Magid Asaleh’s Syrian style at Simply Falafel in Edmond is also a treat. The spice cabinets of Syria and Lebanon are similar given the nations’ proximity, but there are noticeable differences in flavor and emphasis.
- Saturn Grill: Chef Joseph Royer at Saturn Grill makes some of the best falafel in the city, too, and he amps up the flavor with a spicy red pepper sauce that you’ll want to use for everything else on the plate. Combined with the yogurt-tahini sauce, it’s a nearly perfect bite.
- Schwarma & Co: Sitting down to lunch with J. Mays, co-owner of Cafe 7 and The Hamilton, often means a meal at Shawarma & Co, the popular north OKC (basically Edmond) eatery created by brothers Mohammad and Odai Aboubead. “They aren’t afraid of seasoning here,” Mays said. We had been talking about where to find the best falafel in the metro, and Shawarma & Co. is one of his go-tos. “I’ve never ordered anything off this menu that wasn’t delicious,” he said. Their falafel is aggressively seasoned, but not in an overpowering way. There’s tahini on the side, but the fritters don’t really need any help, and their consistency is impressive. What’s the absolute best of all? That’s really up to you.