The falafel is one of the city's all-time great cheap eats, packed with big flavors and satisfying textures while also offering an aura of "balanced meal" healthiness. Fortunately for us there are thousands of decent falafel spots spread out all over town, and over the past few weeks I've eaten about 40,000 chickpeas in an effort to find some of the best. Note that I always ordered the platter rather than the sandwich for this important investigation, both for photographic purposes and because, frankly, the format allows for a better balance in each bite. All the winners, then, are granted their accolades not only based on the falafel balls themselves, but also on how much love and attention are given to the ancillary ingredients.
TAIM: Of all the countless falafels I've wolfed down in this town over the decades, these are the ones I've craved most frequently and ferociously. Everything's always fresh and delicious at both the Waverly Place original and the slightly-more-spacious Spring Street shop, but it's the near-peerless falafel trio that's the soul of this place. The genuinely fiery Harissa is my favorite, but I also get the Green (with parsley, cilantro, and mint) and Kalamata Olive to go with, just to keep things interesting. And when they ask if you want the (free) pickles and peppers, always say "yes, please."
There is a Taim in Nolita at 45 Spring, and in the West Village at 222 Waverly Place. You may also spot the Taim truck, if you get lucky (taimfalafel.com)
HAZAR TURKISH KEBAB: In the heart of Bay Ridge's Arabic community stands this no-nonsense, always-bustling corner restaurant where you can choose from a stupendous array of meat döners and kebabs. So get one of those if you want (I like the lamb) but also get the Falafel Kebab, an enormous plate of food with eight fat falafels—the strongest, most onion-y ones I tried in all my travels—plus hefty piles of garlic-heavy hummus, greasy-in-a-good-way rice, and vinegary salad. There's also lots of dessert options here, and/or in the several bakeries right nearby.
Hazar Turkish Kebab is located at 7224 Fifth Avenue at the corner of 73rd Street in Bay Ridge (718-238-4040)
SIDO: Tucked away on a stretch of the UWS's Columbus Avenue you'll find this tiny counter-service restaurant—with an equally tiny front "patio"—that's been serving lively Mediterranean crowdpleasers for about a dozen years. Sido's six-piece Falafel Appetizer is pretty bare bones (you have to ask for hot sauce, and pita is extra), but there's plenty of well-dressed salad on the plate and the balls themselves are excellent, with just the right amount of crunch on the outside and a fluffy, full-flavored chickpea mixture within. It's the type of place that you might pass a hundred times without considering eating there... until now, when you know that you should.
Sido is located at 267 Columbus Avenue between 72nd and 73rd (212-496-2803)
WAFA'S EXPRESS: Forest Hills' loss was East Williamsburg's gain when, at the end of 2016, Wafa Chami moved her beloved Lebanese restaurant from Queens to a spot right above the L station on Grand Street. And if Chami's cooking was as good there as it is here, I can understand their pain. The Falafel balls at Wafa's Express have a thick and crackling skin around a soft, deep-green interior, and they are terrific, but it's the stellar sides that really elevate this platter, including Mujadara, a lentil and wheat dish topped with chewy, caramelized onions. The hot sauce is no joke here either.
Wafa's Express is located at 812 Grand Street near Bushwick Avenue (718-576-3547; wafasfood.com)
ZAYTOONS: The Fort Greene location of this mini-chain was turned into a taco spot for some reason, but the Carroll Gardens and, especially, the Prospect Heights Zaytoons (complete with backyard patio) remain hopping neighborhood favorites, cranking out piles of first-rate falafel. The crisp "chickpea croquettes" here are heavily seasoned with onions, garlic, parsley, the works, and you should definitely get them with the generous mound of extra-creamy hummus. Great pita and hot sauce as well.
There's a Zaytoons at 283 Smith Street between Sackett and Degraw, and at 594 Vanderbilt Avenue between Bergen and Dean (zaytoons.com)
NISH NUSH: This sunny and airy counter-service restaurant in Tribeca has been serving superb falafel for about four years now and it comes in three distinct varieties: the Classic Forever, rich and deep green with parsley; the Red Hot Chili, which has a nice kick; and the earthy Popeye Delight, made with spinach and mushroom. You should get all three of course, in the massive Nish Nush platter that also features crunchy salads, zippy hummus, and some seriously potent schug. Cool chickpea tables, too.
Nish Nush is located at 88 Reade Street at the corner of Church, and at 41 John Street between Nassau and Dutch (nishnushnyc.com)
KING OF FALAFEL: You can get your falafel fix from the self-proclaimed King via three different vehicles these days: a cart (in Midtown East), a truck (on Ditmars in northern Astoria), and at a friendly, sit-down restaurant right near the N train on Broadway in Long Island City. No matter the location, you're in for a treat. If you go the platter route, the King's intensely-flavored falafel oblongs come with nutty rice, fluffy pita, a salad generously studded with pickles, and the array of sauces are among the best in the game.
The King of Falafel restaurant is located at 3015 Broadway near 31st Street in LIC, Astoria; the truck is parked at Ditmars and 31st; and the cart is at 53rd and Park (kofnyc.com)
ZIZI LIMONA: I'm a big fan of Williamsburg's Middle Eastern cafe Zizi Limona, so was thrilled to have an excuse to return there for this list after about a year's absence. And I'm happy to report that the place is still great! Take the Aunt Trippo's Falafel appetizer, for example: the little balls are super-crisp and boldly-seasoned, and they sit on a heavenly cloud of curry yogurt, with a charred-onion "bowl" of fiery salsa on top. Too much innovation? Not even close. This dish is delicious.
Zizi Limona is located at 29 Havemeyer Street between N 7th and N 8th (347-763-1463; zizilimona1.com)
OMAR'S MEDITERRANEAN: Like many of the best falafel spots, there's nothing on the outside of Omar's—no coded signs, no secret symbols—to indicate that this isn't simply serving generic Middle Eastern fare. That it is, in fact, something special, with good food made by friendly people who care about what they're doing. So I'm telling you now: Omar's Mediterranean, located in two different, equally dreary sections of Midtown East, is the real deal. It's mostly about the lunchtime crowd at the 55th Street restaurant (it closes at 8:00 p.m.), but if you find yourself in these parts needing a quick, easy, and enormously satisfying dinner, the Special Veggie Combo is the move. The falafel is terrific, but so is the hummus, the baba-ganoush, and the sprightly tabouli salad.
Omar's is located at 145 East 55th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues, and at 20 East 39th Street between Fifth and Madison (omars.nyc)
KULUSHKAT: The Park Slope location of Kulushkat (there's also one in Prospect Lefferts Garden) ensures that, in the early evening or on a weekend afternoon, there will be plenty of kids taking up the few stools set before the narrow eating counter that runs along two sides of this cramped space. No matter! Maybe because the name of the place literally means "shut up and eat", everyone is aware what they're here for. The falafel balls are dense and large, the accompaniments have real personality, and the hot sauce is definitely not for the meek.
There's a Kulushkat at 446c Dean Street at the corner of Fifth Avenue in Park Slope, and at 1137b Washington Avenue near Lincoln Road in Prospect Lefferts Garden (kulushkat.com)
MAOZ: Yes, Maoz is an international chain, but since there are only two in NYC, and one of those is a "weather-permitting" kiosk situation, it still feels pretty unique. The falafel is solid here—get a combo of Original and Spicy Jalapeño—but what really lifts this sliver of a spot in Union Square is the help-yourself toppings bar, with its extraordinary array of pickled delights (the bright red baby eggplants are a must), salads, and sauces. My most recent counter-server claimed she ate here five days a week and, given the variety of ways you could mix and match it up, I believe her.
Maoz is located at 38 Union Square East between 26th and 17th Streets; there's also a stand in Central near the Harlem Meer, at Fifth Avenue and 106th Street (maozusa.com) [Ed. Note: The Maoz brand also run Maoz Falafel & Grill, an offshoot with an expanded menu that includes meat.]