Thursday, July 05, 2007

Viva Falafel y Buena Suerte, Mexico

Last week I strolled into Aladdin Express (aka Aladdin’s at Broad and Laurel) and brought back a falafel for lunch. I’ve been going to Aladdin’s for years (10, to be exact) and I usually don’t stray too far from their savory and saucy falafel pita sandwich. For a while there, I was compulsive about falafel, ordering it everywhere I saw it on the menu and always comparing it to Aladdin’s consistently delicious hand-held meal.

Too often at other eateries, I have ordered falafel and rather than receiving fried balls of mashed chick peas and spices, what I got was a crumbly mess of rehydrated and fried prepackaged mix (yuck!). Other places go astray by tinkering with the tahini dressing, or getting too fancy with the veggies, imprecise pita manipulation, over or under-fried falafel balls, etc. Feel free to chime in and report your crimes against falafel (or to mention other good falafel venues, like the Mediterranean Bakery on Quioccasin).

What you receive for $3.99 at Aladdin’s is a 7” pita with a hole cut into the top. Dropped inside* you find a good balance of fried falafel balls, raw onions, tomatoes, and iceberg lettuce, all topped with a thick lemon tahini sauce that slowly drips down through the ingredients to the bottom of the pita. Yes, it’s bursting at the seams and unavoidably messy. But the combination of flavors and sloppiness just seems appropriate. I usually add a drop of Texas Pete hot sauce on each bite, just to make doubly sure that all of my senses are triggered during lunch break. For a little extra, they will throw hummus, baba ghanouj, or tabouli into the already stuffed pita.

Anyhow, I'd like to take a moment to reminisce about an old friend (the sandwich and Aladdin's owner). Behind the counter, Al (god, I hope that’s his name) greeted me after a couple years of missing each other. In recent years, I have been finding vegetarian lunch-break food in places other than Aladdin’s extensive Middle Eastern menu. And Al has been doing well enough with his restaurant (thanks to hooka-toking VCU kids) to consistently delegate cooking and cashier duties. I told him that he’s looking younger and well rested.

Al’s eyes light up. “You know what my secret is?” he says? “Um, you’ve finally gone vegetarian?” “No. Whole wheat pita with fennel seeds. I don’t sell it here, because it would raise the price of my sandwiches. Would you like to try it? You like spicy, right?” “Always. Lay it on me.”

In a couple minutes, Al presents me with a toasted corner of pita bread. There are fennel seeds imbedded in the dough, along with some specs that may have been black sesame seeds. Really yummy stuff, with a warm taste of licorice that really filled my mouth with flavor. I tell him that I like the bread. Once I'm back at the office, I’m not surprised to find that he’s made my falafel sandwich with his special pita/fountain-of-youth. It was delicious, although, by the end, I didn't want to see another fennel seed for a week. Next time, I'll ask him where I can buy the stuff myself.

* At the bottom of Aladdin’s falafel, you will find the very piece of pita bread that was cut from the top to create the opening. Apparantly, they just drop it inside after they cut it of the top. Every time for the past 10 years, it’s right there at the bottom of the sandwich waiting for me. Little touches often make food that much more comforting

Buena Suerte, Mexico

I’ve been probing all of my friends who’ve visited Viva Mexico in Carytown and I haven’t heard a critical word from anyone (or any real excitement either). Maybe I’m just a food snob (do ya think?), but I was not impressed when I went there during their first week open. I know, you can’t judge a restaurant by it’s food for the first six months, but how hard is it to crank out a standard Mexican menu? If there really is a period of adjustment for all restaurants, Viva Mexico clearly needs one.

At Viva Mexico, I enjoyed speaking Spanish with the staff, but I did not eat a single bite that made me smile with pleasure. Okay, maybe the cheese dip, but I’m a sucker for chip’n’dip. The thing that has stuck with me most is that the beans were completely devoid of flavor and fat. This coming from a vegetarian who guiltily looks forward to the essence of lard in his Mexican food (don’t ask, don’t tell, ya know?). My wife didn’t want to speak ill of the place, but did mention that the meat in her taco was totally plain.

I didn’t want to blog about the experience. Karen and I are both excited to be able to walk to a Mexican restaurant. However, after eating there, I came to the conclusion that they were skimping and cutting corners to make ends meet in the high rent blocks of Carytown. It might pay off for them in the short run, but I wondered how long Carytown shoppers would fill their booths without el sabor de los chiles to look forward to.

We haven’t been back since, and I’m hoping that the cooking techniques at Viva Mexico change over time. Anyhow, Dana Craig’s review of Viva Mexico in today’s RTD hits the nail on the head. Rather than talk a bunch of trash, I’ll just endorse today’s review.

Buena suerte, Viva Mexico (that means good luck, by the way)