One summer at camp, Isa Chandra Moskowitz dressed up like a falafel sandwich.
A kid-sized, homemade cardboard pita hugged her 5-year-old body. She had paper lettuce and tomato on her head and cardboard falafel cakes on her hands.
“Falafel, I like to eat it on a Saturday,” she and the other campers sang as part of a performance. “Falafel, the taste is natural.”
After Isa told me this story, at our last falafel lunch for my April Food Prowl story, I stopped scribbling down notes.
I could not have picked a better Prowl partner.
Because if it isn't already clear, Isa — an Omaha transplant, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native and a celebrated vegan chef and cookbook author — knows falafel.
She has eaten hundreds of falafel sandwiches from shops in her hometown. She often cooks the meatless, Middle Eastern fried croquettes, made with a blend of mashed and spiced chickpeas, in her own kitchen. Recipes for falafel appear in two of her best-selling cookbooks: “Vegan With a Vengeance” and “Appetite for Reduction.”
And let me reiterate: She once dressed up as a falafel.
“Falafel could have been the first solid food I ever ate,” she told me a few seconds before she told me about the costume.
And you know, I almost believed her, even though I knew she was kidding.
Isa is the perfect person to help pick the best falafel in Omaha. At each of the seven lunches we ate together, she nitpicked. She talked about texture. Spices. Ingredients. Flavor. Even though she worried about the place she chose as the winner, in the end, she stuck to her guns — and she convinced me, too.
For our first lunch, I met Isa at Mediterranean Bistro and Wine Bar in west Omaha, a place neither of us had heard of.
John McDevitt — Isa's boyfriend and the reason she moved to Omaha — ate with us.
John himself is no falafel slouch: He's been a vegan since 2003 and runs veganomaha.com.
I got my first lesson in ordering at a restaurant if you are a vegan. Isa asked our waitress which items on the menu included dairy and what the restaurant might be able to substitute, a ritual that happened during almost all of our lunches.
Our falafel wraps arrived: mine in a pale white herb wrap and Isa and John's in a bright red sun-dried tomato wrap. Mine came with a side of hummus topped with a dollop of yogurt-based Tzatziki, and the vegan version came with just hummus.
It's too bad that those sauces weren't inside the wrap, because it was dry. The falafel patties were mashed into pieces and the chunks were too grainy. The hummus didn't have enough garlic or lemon for Isa's taste.
“If I were making this wrap,” Isa said, “I'd add some hummus, some olive oil, some of this red sauce (that came with a side order of grape leaves), the falafel, but not mushed up, and the tomatoes and lettuce inside the wrap. Then it'd be better. It'd be pretty good.”
We met the next day in Benson. Lot 2, the neighborhood's newest hot spot, has falafel on its succinct menu.
The waiter there answered all of Isa's questions pleasantly — though he did offer her, at first, a grilled cheese sandwich as a vegan option before she reminded him that being vegan means she doesn't eat dairy.
The chef changed the slaw served with the falafels to be dairy-free for Isa and John's plate.
The falafel at Lot 2 is what we thought it would be: upscale.
Four tight balls of fried, partially ground chunky chickpeas surrounded a small pile of slaw with cabbage, yogurt dressing, pickled onion, cilantro, mint and a dollop of jalapeno chutney.
“They look sort of like chickpea hush puppies,” John said.
The falafel didn't have the traditional Mediterranean spices, though it did taste fresh. We all thought it a bit dry, but Isa found a solution: dipping it in the housemade ketchup “even though that's bad of me,” she said.
We all liked it, but decided it deviated too much from “regular” falafel to be the best.
A couple days later, we met at El Basha near 75th and Pacific Streets.
While we waited for our falafel wraps, Isa told me she became a vegan as a teenager in the 1990s. She created an online cooking show called the Post Punk Kitchen in 2003 with her writing partner, Terry Hope Romero. Two years later, in 2005, she wrote her first cookbook.
Since then, she's become one of the most popular self-trained vegan cookbook writers in the country. She's written seven cookbooks and is working on her eighth. She also has more than 30,000 Facebook followers, has more than 18,000 Twitter followers and writes a popular blog on www.theppk.com.
John became a vegetarian around 2001 and a vegan in 2003. He started Vegan Omaha as a casual gathering in 2008. The restaurant guide on his site, veganomaha.com, has grown to be the definitive resource on eating vegan in Omaha. He also writes a blog called “The Laziest Vegans in the World” where he reviews vegan packaged food like meatless beef jerky and buffalo wings and dairy-free ice cream and ranch dressing.
Isa and John first met at a vegan meet-up for one of Isa's cookbooks. They met a second time and became a couple when they were both on a vegan cruise — yes, you read that right — and though the cruise food wasn't very good (“There was seaweed everywhere,” Isa remembers), things worked out between them.
Isa moved to John's hometown in October 2010.
Our colorful baskets of falafel wrap arrived, and Isa immediately noted that the wrap included a pickle spear. It reminded her of the Israeli falafel she'd eaten in New York growing up, though the falafels at El Basha are Lebanese.
The wraps were full of pleasantly herby falafel with a crisp exterior, a rich tahini-based sauce and lots of bright vegetables. Isa and I both tasted flat leaf parsley, mint, cumin and coriander. The falafel wasn't dry or too crumbly.
“This is a falafel you would crave,” Isa said, and I agreed.
We had lunch at Victor's Mediterranean, where we found a greasier falafel than we wanted. We also didn't care for the $9.50 price tag for two medium-sized falafel patties and a pita without any sides. Isa asked for a dollop of hummus on her sandwich, but the owner said no, and instead made us pay an additional $7 for a plate of hummus that she and John used as a dip.
At McFoster's, the city's best known vegetarian and vegan spot, we found falafel with structural problems. After a few bites, John simply dumped the contents of the flimsy wheat pita onto his plate and ate them as a falafel salad. I will, though, recommend McFoster's vegan cucumber ranch dressing. The stuff is delicious.
We met for our final lunch at Amsterdam Falafel in Dundee.
I've written about Amsterdam's falafel before, and the ones we ate last week were no different: a thick round of crispy, chewy bread filled with two large falafels, green on the inside with herbs.
Amsterdam's sauces and condiments are different from the other places we visited. A cool slaw of minced garlic, bright purple cabbage, carrots, whole chickpeas, cucumber and tomato sits on top of the sandwich. Mixed in are three sauces: spicy, green herb and creamy garlic.
When she first moved to Omaha, Isa said, she didn't like Amsterdam's bread, made at South Omaha's International Bakery and traditionally used for Mexican Torta sandwiches.
But it grew on her.
“I started to like it because it is really good,” she said.
Isa wavered between two falafel sandwiches when it came time to choose the winner.
“I know what I want to choose,” she said.
But she hesitated. So did John.
So I made my choice: El Basha. I liked the pickle inside the falafel wrap. I liked the flavorful tahini sauce. I liked how I tasted so many spices and saw sprigs of fresh mint and parsley.
Isa said she also wanted to choose El Basha, but she couldn't.
“El Basha is slammin',” she said. “But Amsterdam wins. It just does.”
She loves the green, herby falafel cakes. The spicy sauce. The garlicky hummus and the fresh condiments.
And she said even though she knows a lot of people reading this story won't want Amsterdam to win — the three of us know that some in the city think the “hipsters” who run it don't know a thing about making falafel — she thinks it's the best.
“I asked people about their favorite falafel, and some of them said they liked Victor's or other places,” she said. “But then I'd ask them when they were last there, and they'd say two years ago. Then I'd ask them when they'd last been to Amsterdam, and they'd say ‘last week.'”
John voted for Amsterdam, too, and this marks the first Food Prowl where my tasters have outvoted me.
“If I had to choose a falafel to represent my city, and a place where I'd take visitors,” Isa said, “I'd choose Amsterdam.”
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