Middle Eastern comfort food – that’s what to know about falafel, a deep-fried mixture of chickpeas, spices, garlic, lemon and parsley.
Also to know: this ball of savory love is served up fresh six days a week at Beirut Falafel Hut, located near the start of Yosemite Avenue, not far off downtown Modesto. It’s a location that has been far more boon than any suggestion of bane for 15 years – something we’ll get back to later.
While falafel is just one item on the menu, it’s clearly a star – and not just because it’s in the restaurant’s name. On its Facebook page, the Lebanese family-owned eatery suggests this: “Feelin’ awful? Order falafel!!”
So I did.
Not that I was feeling awful or anything. It was on a list of Middle Eastern dishes I’ve been wanting to try. Enter several suggestions by readers to try Beirut Falafel Hut, and a lunchtime opportunity was born.
I ordered a falafel sandwich and chicken shawarma. No, I didn’t eat all of both (although, let’s face it, I seriously could have), but shared half of each with a pair of newsroom colleagues. All gave two enthusiastic thumbs up.
The shawarma – a pita-wrapped sandwich filled with chicken, lettuce and tomatoes – is elevated by a garlic sauce, a smooth, cooling counterpoint to the warm, spiced chicken. The garlic sauce is a point of pride at the cozy cafe owned by owner Licha Abounaoun, resting at a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it spot on Yosemite, close to the sprawling E&J Gallo Winery campus.
“My dad makes it here, everyone goes crazy over it,” Licha’s daughter, 21-year-old Sarah Abounaoun, said. “They always tells us we should bottle it and sell it.”
Yeah, count me in with those folks; the garlic sauce is magic and takes the shawarma over the top. Also delicious is that falafel sandwich, a vegan option similarly pita-wrapped with lettuce and tomatoes. The falafel comes with a tahini sauce and a different texture – a tender crunch on the outside, soft on the inside – and a fresh hint of herbs.
Like many items on the menu, you can order falafel several ways – in a pita, on a salad or a bed of hummus. And if you want that garlic sauce on your falafel, they’ll happily do that, too. Sarah said customers can, and do, customize their orders, some even creating a new dish and attaching their names to it; there are 10 or so such orders that could make up a menu of its own.
That customers are comfortable enough to do so is part of the home-like atmosphere the Abounaoun family has created. No surprise, a hanging on the eatery’s back wall declares “Come Gather At The Table.”
“Customers come to eat and then they bring us the plates,” Licha said. “I tell them, it’s OK, you leave them, we will pick them up ... But they feel like they’re at home.”
The restaurant opened about 15 years ago with Licha’s brother, Abdou and recipes taught by their mother. In 2008, Abdou left to open the Cedar Hookah Lounge.
The food-and-home feel brings customers back – sometimes twice on the same day. “We get customers all the time and they’ll come and eat for lunch, for work, and then they’ll bring their kids and family at night,” Sarah said. “So it’s cool ... I meet the family, it’s really nice.”
Many of those customers work for nearby Gallo, she said – a big part of that boon mentioned earlier about their location. The bane idea comes from some online review site posters who paint the area with terms like “sketchy” or “in the Tenderloin of Modesto.” Important note: those same reviewers give high stars to the food and service.
Despite the impressions of some, the location never has been a problem, the Abounaouns say, and they shrug off any suggestion otherwise. In 15 years, Licha said, they’ve had a single broken window and no other issues. The sentiment is echoed by other online reviewers urging readers to not be concerned and just go for the food.
“It’s been good,” Licha said of their spot on Yosemite. “It doesn’t keep people away.”
Next time: Fine dining on wheels?