Monday, July 14, 2014

Falafel's Drive-In (Middle Eastern/Greek), San Jose, CA

San Jose has long been a town devoid of culinary creativity and quality. Many say most of the city's greatest establishments would not last a month in more competitive regions like San Francisco or Berkeley. Falafel's Drive-In, one of the South Bay's oldest and most cherished establishments, might be the lone exception to that generalization. Since its founding in 1966, this Middle Eastern joint has been serving up hundreds of signature Falafels and Banana Shakes a day to throngs of hungry customers. Its success stems in part from its unique design and vintage appeal; a lone service window fields orders from long lines of visitors attracted like gnats by the restaurant's iconic twenty foot high neon sign. Design aside, multitudes more are attracted by the great, simple, and affordable food. Regardless of attraction, the vast majority of customers leave happy, helping Falafel's Drive-In keep its title as the best cheap choice in West San Jose.

Though I initially dined at Falafel's back in 2000, my first return visit did not occur until last week, when I drove down San Carlos scanning the sides of the road for a quick bite. After passing up a McDonald's, Jack in the Box, and an arsenal of taquerias, I nearly gave up hope before spying the giant "Falafel" sign in the distance. Reluctantly, I agreed to drop a Middle Eastern lunch into an already upset stomach. After parking, I shuffled up to the window and quickly decided to order the classic meal (a large banana shake and large Falafel) and a Koubby. All the food combined cost a cool $12 (the meal $9), a reasonable price for the portion size. The service, though slow, was kind, wishing me a nice day as I took my seat and waited on my food.

My lunch came quickly, just five minutes after I paid, even though a large crowd had ordered right before me. I started with the Koubby, which, in retrospect, wasn't the best choice. The thick ball of ground beef and pine nuts coated with a cracked wheat shell was essentially a bad deep fried meatball - greasy and flavorless, as well as slightly overcooked. Though initially put off, I recovered my appetite by sipping the banana shake, a delicious, simple drink made with real ice cream, a little ice, and fresh whole bananas. Thick and creamy, the milkshake turned out to be the best part of the meal.

My Falafel was simply not of the same caliber. Filled with four freshly fried Falafel balls, iceberg lettuce, and a half cup of Sriracha, the large sandwich was certainly worth the price. The entree came laid out on its side, though, a position that allowed the ingredients to spill out onto the tray. Once placed upright and re-stuffed, the pita holding it all together instantly began to disintegrate, far too saturated by the lake of Sriracha to stay together. Grabbing a fork and knife, I ate my sandwich like a nice salad. Though tasty as a whole, the excellent Falafel balls were overwhelmed and equally saturated by the unnecessary amount of pepper sauce. A tangy Tzatziki would have done a far better job of accenting the flavor of the Chickpeas, assuming that's what the chef intended to do. After throwing the last hunks of iceberg lettuce away and cleaning my place, I left the restaurant and returned home slightly unhappy.

Though my first return trip to Falafel's did not live up to expectations, I found enough positives to give the place a second chance. Two days later, I returned with an empty stomach and mental note to skip the Koubby. My second sandwich was far better than the first (less Sriracha and lettuce, and a hint of Tzatziki on the Falafel), but the shake was icy and boring. This left me with only one possible conclusion: Falafel's Drive-In is the definition of hit-or-miss. Some days, the food pumped out by this tiny kitchen is the best around. On others, the shakes are sad and sandwiches soggy. It all depends on the date, your stomach, and, apparently, the phase of the moon or other arbitrary factor. Flip a coin, heads you buy a falafel, tails you get a taco down the street. Either way, you have a chance of getting some great food that won't break the bank.

Falafel Drive-in on Urbanspoon

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