Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Now that's Falafel.

For just over a year, Amsterdam has been serving falafel to belligerent Saturday night clubbers and twenty-something locals who live in what some might call Washington's version of Greenwich Village: Adams Morgan.

In the midst of the wonderful-but-yuppifying area stands a cozy falafel shop with a few patio tables and a short staircase leading up to its front doors. Husband-and-wife owners Scott and Arianne Bennett live upstairs with their big black dog. They left their grassy backyard and spacious two-story Chevy Chase home just a couple years ago for Adams Morgan's wild 18th Street strip.

As vivacious as the strip was before, the nightlife was starving for a hipper fast food alternative. The oversized pizza slices and even good ol' Julia's were both getting ol' fast. Besides, with Tryst, Zucchabar and all the other hot spots in the area, herds of drunkards (with a mad case of the munchies) were guaranteed to roam the streets every weekend. As Scott and Arianne discovered, the falafel shop was a goldmine waiting to happen.

All they had to do was serve mashed chick peas in pita bread (your choice of white or wheat) and people would come running. Now the humble eatery is an institution in the urban sphere sandwiched between Columbia Heights and Rock Creek Park.

Arianne and Scott visited their friends in Amsterdam many times before they decided to bring the city's falafel culture back to Washington. Also in their suitcases were postcards and candid shots of the downtown Amsterdam falafelries, which now sit underneath their restaurant's glass tabletops. Ajax, the bearded mascot from the city's champion football team, also makes a few appearances on the walls to make the spirit of Amsterdam come alive.

If the authentic decor is not enough, Amsterdam's signature charm lies in the free-for-all Israeli-style buffet line. Twenty garnishes sit in a row including the gamut of traditional Middle Eastern sauces and spreads, from crimson-colored beets to pickled cabbage to tzatziki.

The buffet line is so incredible that many customers were left overwhelmed, constantly asking the employees for a rundown. About a month back, Scott and Arianne decided it was time to create a framed guide, including up-close photos and titles of each garnish. Hummus, yeah we get it, but what's the deal with the spicy red pepper sauce or the fried eggplant in the left corner? Time to reference the Amsterdam Garnish Guide for Dummies located on the nearby wall.

The spicy green herb sauce known as “torator” sits modestly amid the tahini and pickled cabbage, but cashier Joel often points to it with caution from behind the counter. A close friend of Scott and Arianne, Joel likens the fiery garnish to a Middle Eastern horseradish. I had a bit and let's just say the sinuses were cleared instantly.

Traditionally, falafel is an Arab food, but the cherished kiosk snack has sparked tensions between Palestinian and Israeli communities for years over who actually "owns" the chick pea fritters. Funny how cuisine can bring two rivaling territories together-- the Turks and Greeks feud over coffee and baklava in between disputes over Cypress.

At Amsterdam the garnish line is Israeli-style, meaning you build your falafel sandwich with your own choice of condiments. For best results, as a sign inside recommends, first remove some of the falafel, layer with toppings, then add the rest of the falafel and apply another round of toppings to finish it off. There's no seconds on garnishes at Amsterdam, so take the buffet line seriously-- though I've been known to sneak a few when nobody was looking.

The topping process is like an art form. Everyone has their own permutation. Arianne likes hers with a bit of hummus, baba ghanouj, garlic cream sauce and the freshly sliced tomato-onion Turkish salad.

Open late and dirt cheap, Amsterdam epitomizes comfortable eating. For $3.75, a small sandwich contains three falafel balls in a half-cut pita and the large, with five falafel, has a bit more pita room and still just $5.25, comparable to a Subway 6-incher.

Dutch style fries are $2.75-3.85 with dipping sauces including Dutch Mayo and a recently added peanut sauce. Mayo is not my thing, but the twice-baked fries are always warm and perfectly crisp. (Words of advice- try throwing them into your sandwich).

The white board includes a last item on the minimalist menu— Virgin Space Cakes. There's an old Amsterdam tradition of serving pot-laced brownies at coffee houses. Sorry guys, no Mary Jane here.

Few rules exist at Amsterdam. Instead, the freedom to create your own pita-enveloped masterpiece lies in your hands, literally. Yet Amsterdam does stand by one statue-- in order to "reduce trash on the planet," they won’t use spoons, forks or plates, but instead serve the falafel wrapped in a wax-paper sleeve. Every once in a while Arianne finds a few plastic sampling spoons from Maggie Moo’s that creep in from across the street…other than that, you’ll often find her on the patio talking with the locals with her black dog, complaint-free.

Check out other Amsterdam reviews by:
the dcist, dcfud, washington post, urban jetset.

::Other bits of amsterdaming buzz::

DC Foodies wife and blogger babe Amalah put Amsterdam at the top of her list when an Irish tourister asked her about "the essential Washington experience." When referring to Amsterdam, Amalah said, "Goddmamn. The falafel is to die for."

During Hurricane Katrina, Arianne's brother drove down to New Orleans to save stranded victims. He advertised his willingness to help on Craig's List. Another reason why Craig is saving the world, one posting at a time.

::Other bites of falafel::

Amsterdam is just one example of the hidden falafel joints buried amid the more mainstream Café Milanos and Chipotles. George’s King of Falafel sits quietly next to Zed’s down M Street. Last Saturday, the King was so packed that the cashier halted orders at 1 AM so the crew could “catch up.” The lack of Israeli-style garnish line-up takes away from the experience a bit, but the food is still richly authentic and the gritty ambiance makes Georgetown feel like a world away.

Mama Ayesha’s, just over the Duke Ellington Bridge near the Adams Morgan Metro station, serves a fancier set of Lebanese cuisine but is still dirt cheap for a charming restaurant. The hospitality is just as warm and inviting—the indoor fountains and overhanging antique silver lanterns add charisma that most latenight greasy falafel joints don’t have. The kitchen doesn’t close until 11PM on weekdays and midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, and don’t be intimidated by the welcoming host and white tablecloths –the falafel is still just five bucks.

George's King of Falafel is located at 205 28th Street, off the M Street strip. Mama Ayesha's is located at 1967 Calvert Street. Amsterdam (map shown below) is located at 2425 18th Street, in the heart of Adams Morgan.


At 10:26 PM, Blogger culocho said...

Great piece!

At 9:10 AM, Blogger GrrreenieMeany said...

Love the piece but I wish there was a bit more on actual FALAFEL (history, geography, economics, etc.) in it. <3 Good job, though.


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