The UN community, with its incomparable mix of people from around the globe, has a soft spot for falafel as well as for world peace. In the triangle stretching between the main UN gate on First Avenue and East 42nd Street to East 48th Street along Third Avenue, excellent spots abound for buying a tasty falafel lunch, whether in sandwich, platter or salad form.
Falafel is a vegetarian meal of deep-fried golden-brown balls of ground chick peas or fava beans or a combination thereof. The dish originated in the Middle East, but today it is truly an international food. Truth be told, falafel tastes about the same wherever you get it, although this or that version may be crunchier, moister, spicier or greasier than another. What makes the dish special is the rainbow array of garnishes and sauces that accompany the main attraction. The more choices, and the more inventive the choices, the better.
A recent tour of the Falafel Triangle proved that you can’t really go wrong with this dish, although prices vary and some places have more dazzling garnishes than others.
To keep the comparisons as fair as possible, I focused on a single variant, the falafel salad, consisting of falafel balls on a base of greens, topped with garnishes and doses of hot sauce and tahini, a thick sauce of ground sesame seeds and olive oil.
Crunchy With Hot Sauce
My favorite was found at Naya Express on Third Avenue, between 43rd and 44th Streets. For $8.50, you can get a killer platter of five crunchy falafel balls on a bed of shredded romaine lettuce, topped with your choice of any or all 10 different garnishes as well as tahini and hot sauce — one kind, hot; the other, hotter.
For some reason, the house charges an extra 92 cents to add baba ghanoush to the mix, but I recommend it, particularly if you are pretty hungry. It is rich and tangy, and for your money you’ll get a generous scoop.
Other favorites were a thick and creamy hummus, bright red slivers of pickled turnip, palate-awakening chopped pickles and thinly sliced jalapeños. True, jalapeños are not particularly Middle Eastern, but they add a crunchy bite that is starkly different from the hot sauces.
Let me mention, too, the whipped garlic sauce, a marvelous accompaniment that pulls no punches. It is slick on the tongue, like a homemade mayonnaise, and has an unrestrained garlic kick, so cancel your appointments for the rest of the day.
Naya Express has limited seating of backless benches that are fixed to the floor. It packs its falafel salad in a solid, mostly cardboard container whether you order your food to stay or to go; the plastic flatware and napkins are of above-average quality. New Age music is piped in, perhaps to ease your digestion — or is it to hurry you out the door? In either case, it’s not loud or annoying enough to impede conversation.
At Sido Gourmet on Third Avenue, between 45th and 46th Streets, the falafel salad is sold as a “combination platter.” For $8.50, you get three falafel balls and three garnishes chosen from a list that includes a crunchy green salad with cucumber, tomato and green pepper; a thick and flavorful hummus; a mellow baba ghanoush (mashed roasted eggplant with olive oil and spices), and a dense, tangy tabouli salad (with bulghur, tomato, cucumber, parsley and mint).
A second plate bears a layer of tahini and a pool of hot sauce. With all that are two toasted pitas. This platter may be a bit smaller than the others but is still big enough to satisfy the heftiest of appetites. Sido has no pretensions in the decor department, but it offers plenty of seating if you want to eat on the spot.
Crisp, at 43rd Street and Third Avenue, is part of a mini-chain with several locations in New York. The decor is slicker and more modern than at Sido, and the music edgy and loud. This place can also get mobbed at peak lunch hours. You might have to wait in line to order and wait in a second line to pick up your food.
While there are a few high tables and stools available, most people appear to take out their falafel in specially designed oversize paper sacks, perhaps because of the din and the press of waiting bodies. The establishment says that its salad bowls are biodegradable, but your lunch will come wrapped in so many layers of paper that it will take a while just to peel it out.
Numerous variations on the falafel salad platter are offered, but the one that comes closest to the traditional version is called the “crisp authentic.” For $8.45, you get four falafel balls on a bed of lovely mixed greens, including baby arugula and shreds of purple cabbage. The salad is garnished with hummus, purple cabbage slaw and a chopped cucumber and tomato salad. Topping it all is a good-size blob of thick hot sauce. The customary tahini accompaniment comes in a little plastic tub. You also get a toasted pita, with a choice of regular or whole wheat.
The fun thing here is that, for the same price, you can put together your own falafel salad, picking from a long list of traditional and exotic garnishes; among them, spicy African peanut sauce, a savory sun-dried tomato spread, guacamole, baba ghanoush, Moroccan carrot-mint salad and goat, feta and Parmesan cheeses.
A word to the wise: Steer clear of the blobby fried eggplant.
Naya Express is open Monday through Friday from 11 am to 10 pm and Saturdays from noon to 8 pm. It is located at 688 Third Avenue, between 43rd and 44th Streets. (212) 557-0007.
Sido Gourmet is open daily from 11 am to 10 pm. It is located at 849 Second Avenue, between 45th and 46th Streets. (212) 286-3639.
Crisp is open Monday through Friday from 10 am to 10 pm and Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 8 pm. It is located at 684 Third Avenue at 43rd Street. (212) 661-0000.
Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.