Travel via food
Da Falafel King
The first time I tried Da Falafel King, it was a lunch truck at an Eat the Street event many months back. Now, Da Falafel King rules over a territory that includes a vendor in Waikiki, a truck in Moiliili and most recently, a small dine-in on South King Street. I brought a friend and had dinner at the restaurant.
Falafel is among the most popular street foods throughout the Middle East, among many countries and cultures. Even McDonald’s in Egypt makes a McFalafel.
And the falafel Da King makes is delicious. But the star of the show, the real deal, was the meze.
You sit down at the table and order, but before your entrees have a chance to arrive, the table disappears under a spread of Mediterranean appetizers: 11 small colorful dishes bursting with fresh flavor. Spiced carrots. Babaganoush. Pickled cucumbers. Pita chips. Hummus. They come in unlimited quantities, but only if you dine in, and they change daily.
For our entrees, we ordered the falafel sandwich ($13), because these crispy brown chickpea croquettes are just too good, and the shawarma sandwich ($16). The pita bread is made in Israel, shipped here frozen and baked in the company’s central kitchen, at the restaurant. The fluffy, soft, split bread effectively holds all the stuffings nicely: protein, lettuce, pickles, eggplant and red cabbage. The chicken in the shawarma was tender, flavorful and would have made Iron Man proud. (Avengers, anyone?)
Owner Aviv Yosef told me later over the phone that he and his wife, Yanir, moved to Hawaii 9 years ago. He pursued a biology or physics major at UH Manoa before the falafel business became his passion. “We didn’t expect a lot of people to like it, but local people are really supporting us,” says Yosef.
Open for about two and half months, the restaurant is Yosef’s headquarters. He sends out food for final preparation at the other two locations. “The importance is the quality of the product … It has to be fast food, with fast service, but healthy.”
Yosef isn’t joking about the fast service: During dinner, a group of Japanese nationals poured in, filling up half the small space. Immediately, tables were moved, space opened up, and little dishes came whizzing out like a blurry dance. We were impressed.
You could get your quick falafel fix down the street at the lunch truck. But my recommendation is eat at the restaurant. It’s worth the extra $5. (It’s the meze!)
A couple issues ago, I wrote a review on a new restaurant called Chutney. The place was most decidedly Indian, complete with obligatory Bollywood music and slightly tacky Indian décor…rather like every Indian restaurant around town.
Little India, which opened in far edge of Waikiki on May 1, was different. A pair of us stood outside an upscale-looking place with white tablecloths, a tiki bar and gleaming glass windows. It was almost empty, save for three guys sitting at a table with a laptop. We peered inside, wondering whether we were at the right place. Then one fellow strode over and rapidly led us to a table decorated with flowers, a candle and an elephant figurine (the latter being the only thing, apart from us, that looked remotely Asian).
Our server recommended chicken tikka masala ($23), lamb vindaloo ($27) and vegetable samosas ($7). I asked, “How come you don’t have lassi?” “Because it fills you up! We want you to enjoy the real food.”
When the samosa arrived, he scolded us for using utensils. (“Do you eat sushi with a fork and knife?” I apologized.) The food was good, crunchy and fried with vegetables, but salty.
The masala and vindaloo came in two large plates separated into six portions for the entrée, vegetables, saffron rice, lentil and two pieces of naan or paratha. Go for the parantha; it tasted like buttery flakes of thin bread. Our server said paratha allows you to enjoy the curry flavor, but naan is too thick. Both entrees were standard stuff: masala mild, vindaloo spicy. Vegetables, unfortunately, salty. I was downing cups of water like shots and got scolded again. “You will get too full!”
Later, on the phone, owner Michael Nasprogiuseppe said, “Indian food is known as cheap cuisine, and we’re trying to change that. We wanted people to come in and try different types of foods; you can get pork chops and shrimp if you wanted.” Food is by Chef Tony Navii, formerly of Monsoon India in Waikiki.
Mixing Western with Indian is a tough, awkward combo, but you gotta admire Little India’s innovative step. Here’s to hoping they can pull it off.