2005_06_food_chickpea.jpgGothamist ate way too much falafel in our college years. Cheap and fast, the Middle Eastern sandwiches were probably the only decent source of nutrition we got back then. But now, sufficient time has passed (we're not going to say exactly how much) for us to have return to the old standby. Chickpea (with locations at 3rd Avenue and St. Mark’s as well as now on 14th Street between 2nd and 3rd) offers perhaps one of the best versions downtown. The restaurant makes its own pitas, fries the batter in small batches, and uses a salad mix that actually tastes fresh. A thin coating of hummus lines the pita and hot sauce and tahini come on the side. At four dollars, it may also be the most expensive in town, but nowadays we can spare the extra buck.

Close runners-up are Rainbow Falafel on 17th just west of Union Square and Café Rakka on St. Mark’s just west of 1st Avenue. Neither place pays attention to the pita and salad, but both craft their chickpea balls with special care. At Rainbow, the delectable fritters are heavily seasoned with crushed coriander seeds, which provide an extra crunch. At Rakka, the falafel have a little hole in the center like a doughnut, to ensure even crispness. All these places do one thing the same: If you break open a falafel you will see the batter is flecked with green. This means the cook went to the trouble to add chopped cilantro and/or parsley, and we’ve found it’s a sign for both freshness and tastiness. Another tip is to stay away from streetcarts if you want good falafel. Despite their ubiquity, many Middle Eastern carts serve fritters that are sodden messes. We suspect it’s because it’s too hard to keep the oil hot enough with such portable equipment. But, we hold out hope of finding better examples along Manhattan sidewalks—know of any?

photo from Transparent Reality via flickr.