4 phenomenal falafels

FEAST: Middle Eastern treats for those who don't eat meat
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Theatre Too Cafe
By Charles Russo

Falafel — those delightful deep-fried chickpea (or sometimes fava bean) balls — could quite possibly be the perfect food. It spans cultures: Originally a fasting food from Egypt, falafel became popular in the Middle East, was adopted by Jewish immigrants to Palestine, and is now a favorite fast food internationally. It spans food preferences: vegetarians like the protein-packed nutrition; omnivores like the crunchy/chewy texture. And, when combined in a pita with vegetables and hummus, yogurt, or tahini, the highly portable sandwich combo spans locations. Here are some of our favorite places to get these diverse delights.

OASIS GRILL

If you find yourself hungry for a quick, tasty lunch or dinner in the FiDi, skip the high-end sandwich shops and head to this unassuming Mediterranean eatery. The tiny grab-and-go spot (there's only room for two people, or one very large one, to sit down), is the perfect place to get spicy falafel with fresh veggies with a generous helping of tahini and hummus, all wrapped in a thin, soft lavash bread. The only thing more impressive than the falafel — that owner Mohammed not only miraculously manages to remember your order, but to find you amid the throngs of people packed into the tiny shop like a rush hour BART train.

91 Drumm, SF. (415) 781-0313, www.sfoasisgrill.com

LIBA

The folks behind Liba — whose name means romance/love in several languages including Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian — want you to fall in love with their falafel, and you'll be hard-pressed to resist. The courtship starts with the exterior of this adorable mobile lunch spot: mint green paint, swirly lettering, and potted plants are smart and inviting. Next, Liba reels you in with organic, local, natural ingredients and an environmentally-focused philosophy. But the kicker is the falafel: just crispy enough and served in a fluffy pita with your choice of toppings that give traditional ingredients an inventive twist (think tomato cucumber salad with mint or red beets with lemon and thyme). If you're extra hungry, you can even add a side of sweet potato fries to your meal. Doesn't sound like your average gyro stand? It's not. With inspiration gathered from a number of countries and cuisines, the only way we can describe it is "falafel fusion." You might not expect it, but get ready for the delicious flavors to hit you like, well, a truck.

155 De Haro, SF. (415) 806-5422, libasf.com

SUNRISE DELI & CAFÉ

Nestled between Asian markets in sleepy Outer Sunset, Sunrise Deli & Café has been around for three decades, always delivering food whose ingredients have never seen the inside of a freezer or plastic packaging. We believe the café's longevity must be due in part to the falafel, which arrives looking more like the cousin of a burrito than a taco. With Sunrise's version, eggplant and potatoes strain against the confines of lavash bread, with plenty of tahini and fresh tomatoes to balance all that carby goodness. Though the little balls of grain are always good, try to get them right out of the fryer, when they're piping hot, crunchy but not greasy, and delicious. But if you do stop here, plan accordingly. You'll want to arrive ravenous, or else risk quite the bellyache (because you won't be able to stop eating until this falafel is gone). Have a heftier appetite? Round out your order with other entrees, sandwiches, salads, and dips, which you can enjoy at an inside table or take it all to go.

2115 Irving, SF. (415) 664-8210, sunrisedeli.net

THEATRE TOO CAFÉ

Waiting for falafel inside this Middle Eastern eatery is almost as enjoyable as eating it.