The third time was the charm for Mohamed Jamal, who cycled through several business ventures before settling on the perfect one. He first opened a candy store on 17th Street in 1989, which he then transformed into a juice bar, before finally arriving at the space’s current iteration: Rainbow Falafel. Mohamed used the recipes he learned at his grandmother’s knee during his childhood in Syria to create a healthy, Middle Eastern menu. “We stick to all of the old-fashioned, classic foods and never change them, ” Mohamed affirmed, adding that the freshness and preservative-free nature of everything he serves is key to his philosophy. Offerings include the eponymous falafels served in veggie-filled sandwiches and platters, as well as stuffed vine leaves, spanakopita, hummus and other spreads. Impressively, most of the spices and special ingredients are imported, such as tahini from Lebanon, olives from Greece and mango juice from Egypt. To Mohamed, who runs Rainbow Falafel alongside his wife and son, the restaurant’s prosperity is easy to explain — “We are always here and we are always happy. ”
Au Za’atar is an Arabian-French bistro at the edge of Alphabet City that serves everything from Mediterranean cheeses to couscous to mezze, a variety of small plates meant to accompany drinks — which can be paired with Au Za’atar’s extensive wine and craft beer offerings. The chef is Lebanese, but there are plenty of recipes originating from Morocco and Tunisia as well. The restaurant’s interior is simple and inviting, with brick walls, rich wooden tables, and red leather booths, making it a great place to sample some exotic dishes or just grab a drink at the bar.
Over the years that I have been walking on the side streets, I have found that several of the successful food trucks and carts have decided to make the leap and open brick-and-mortar locations. At any hour of the day, this Middle Eastern company has been known to have a line down the block at their West 53rd Street cart waiting for their gyros. They began serving this cuisine on the streets in 1990, opened an eatery on 14th Street in 2014, and then a few months later, their second shop opened on 95th. The Manhattan Sideways team stopped in for lunch, excited to try the food after smelling it for so long on street corners. There is a quick and efficient ordering line right by the entrance as well as a collection of tables for those who prefer to eat in. The back wall is cleverly designed to look like a line of people queuing for a food cart, complete with a three dimensional umbrella. As for the food, the team agreed that though messy, it was excellent. Customers can order a sandwich in a pita, or a platter that comes with rice and lettuce. I had been warned that the Halal Guys’ hummus was some of the best in the city: sure enough, it was quite good, as was their flaky baklava.
A mixture of chickpeas, onions, garlic, and spices are deep fried to a golden brown to create Mamoun’s signature falafel. Drizzled with tahini sauce and sprinkled with cold lettuce and tomatoes, this sandwich becomes the perfect vegetarian lunch. Since 1971, customers have been eating it to the sounds of ethnic music or taking it out for a walk down 8th street. For spicy food enthusiasts, like my husband, I might recommend bringing home a bottle of Mamoun’s hot sauce. It was well received.