The other day I was running an errand in a different part of the city and I passed by this tiny little deli, a really nondescript store, one of those countless little sandwich, soda, cigarette places littered across the city. I’d usually say it’s a bodega, but this definitely wasn’t a bodega, because, and I had to do a double take here, there was a picture of a falafel sandwich on the door. I’ve been really into falafel lately, and I find that all of the sudden it’s everywhere. Or maybe it’s not all of the sudden, maybe it’s just one of those things where as soon as I’m aware of something, I see it everywhere. Anyway, I’m always down for a snack, so I go inside.
I could tell the guy behind the counter was the owner just by the way he said hello. Like he really meant it, hello, welcome to my store, please spend money here. Hourly workers don’t really give a shit if you’re there or not. And most of the time at stores like this you’re only in to buy a drink or a scratch-off. If I were behind the counter I’d be so zoned out into space I wouldn’t have any reaction even if a gang of armed robbers stormed in. I’d just open the register and step aside.
So with the pleasantries out of the way, I asked for a falafel. The guy’s face lit up. “Falafel, eh?” I looked up at the board. Like any deli in the city, there were like a hundred things listed on the menu. Literally every single dish or sandwich that ever existed was written somewhere up there. And this place was maybe five by ten feet. Like really tiny.
He started scooping the falafel into balls while the oil heated up. He started questioning me, slowly.
“So, you like falafel?”
“Yeah, I really do.”
“Where do you live? Where do you buy your falafel?”
“I live in Queens. There’s a truck on Broadway that I go to.”
“How much do you pay for your falafel?”
“Three dollars for a pita sandwich, six for a platter with rice.”
And then things took a turn.
“Falafel and rice? I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
“You eat your falafel with rice? I’ve never in my life eaten falafel with rice. Not even once.”
“Huh. Yeah they sell it with basmati rice and salad and …”
“Salad. Yes. But rice? I cannot even conceive of falafel and rice. It makes absolutely no sense to me.”
At this point I was getting a little uncomfortable. My falafel cart in Queens always has a line down the block. They have a trophy that they display, the Vendy, and they’ve won it every year for the past five years. I’m not sure how competitive this Vendy qualification process is, but whatever, I’m not an authority, and the trophy looks legit.
But this guy’s now staring at me, right in the eye, and he’s moving closer. Falafel and rice, never, really? Am I ordering this wrong? Have I been ordering this the wrong way all of this time? Do the guys at the falafel truck think the same thing about me when I order falafel and rice from them? This guy keeps asking the same question, over and over again, about falafel and rice, and I’m getting anxious, so I expertly change topics.
“You know, one time I tried to make falafel, but I didn’t use a food processor. I just tried to chop it up really finely and …”
“No. Always use food processor. I grind my falafel three times. No less than three times.”
OK, he took the bait. He was off of the falafel and rice business. He started talking about oil temperatures and how to test it by cooking a piece of onion first. He offered to sell me his raw falafel mix, and then I could make it at home, but I was really more concerned about this falafel sandwich, the one that I ordered, the one that was taking so long for him to even get in his deep fryer.
Meanwhile, whereas I was the only customer at first, now there were like five other people behind me, all with just bottles of water or soda, looking to get in and out, quick. One guy started complaining, could he just leave the dollar and go?
“No. I am making a falafel sandwich for this person.”
The guy on line looked at me and I just kind of smiled and shrugged. Sorry brah. Finally the owner finished my sandwich. Before he handed it over he kind of hesitated, looked me one more time in the eye and said, “Falafel and rice,” and then his eyes got real squinty, a real sinister kind of look flashed across his face, and he said, “I bet you anything this falafel truck is owned by an Egyptian.”
And I’m just like, what the hell? I have no idea who’s from what country. Basically every single nation that’s even close to the Mediterranean Sea claims falafel as their own dish. But again, I’m an expert at getting out of weird situations like this, so I match his suspicious glance and I say, “You know what? He’s definitely an Egyptian.” The owner nodded in approval. I had no idea who I was offending or insulting or even where this guy was from. I just wanted out.
He handed me my sandwich, charged me six bucks, definitely more than my Egyptian falafel back home, and he tells me, “Eat my falafel. If you like it, you’ll come back and eat more.” Not a thank you come again, this was more like a prophecy.
I left thinking, yeah right, no way pal. But I ripped open the foil and took a few bites. It was amazing. Delicious. Maybe I’d have to come back after all.