No one who knows me would be surprised that I love falafel, but the point is worth restating: I love falafel. Falafel is the perfect midday snack. Falafel is the perfect late-night snack. Falafel is a food without pretensions, without borders and without prejudice.
You’d think that the simplicity of the fried chickpea fritters would make botching it a Herculean task, but ill-fated attempts are not hard to find. A few years in Washington, D.C., and a lifetime in the Bay Area have made that truth abundantly clear to me: Falafel that’s too mushy, too chewy or too tough is rarely more than a stone’s throw away.
Still, a number of formidable offerings can also be found. If you’re ever in San Jose, Calif., drop by Falafel’s Drive-In, a much-loved fixture of the Bay Area’s vibrant ethnic food scene. D.C. is also home though to a number of respectable falafel shops; local favorite Amsterdam Falafelshop dominates online lists, but Georgetown’s own Falafel Inc. is also an excellent option. However, a new contender for the D.C. falafel crown has emerged in the last few weeks: Shouk, an Israeli-inspired, plant-based, upstart fast-casual chain that has taken the D.C. metropolitan area by storm since its opening in 2016 and the opening of its second location in Union Market in the spring of 2018.
Shouk, located in Mount Vernon Triangle and Union Market, was founded by chefs Dennis Friedman and Ran Nussbacher. Friedman boasts an impressive culinary pedigree, having been trained under food icons Daniel Boulud, a world renowned chef with a two-Michelin star restaurant, and Alan Wong, a leader in Hawaiian cuisine. The Israeli-born entrepreneur Nussbacher manages the business side of the restaurant. Both members of the pair are strict vegans.
The restaurant aims to emulate the ethos of Israel’s open air markets — the Hebrew word for market, shouk, inspires the name of the restaurant. Arabic speakers will recognize the name’s similarity to the word souq — both words are plastered across the restaurant’s walls in their native script, a testament to the cross-cultural inspirations behind Shouk’s dishes.
The first thing that newcomers to Shouk will notice is the restaurant’s distinctive character. The word “industrial” has been tossed around a number of a times in this column; however, the descriptor is particularly fitting with Shouk. The space still has a cozy, authentic feel, though: The restaurant resembles a cafe more closely than it does a fast-casual eatery. A lively mix of Arabic and Israeli music plays in the background, board games are available for use, and a few patrons had settled down with laptops and books as I came in.
As for the food, I opted for a falafel pita for $10.95 and a cardamom chocolate cookie for $2. Worthy of note, the pita seemed dramatically smaller than the rice bowl and mixed greens option, though all three options were priced similarly. Still, the pita sandwich was definitely larger and more filling than the $3 sandwiches that you’ll find at a place like Falafel Inc.
How does Shouk’s falafel compare to that of its competitors? The falafel balls themselves were fantastic: characteristically crisp on the outside, with a soft, almost fluffy interior. They had a pleasant crumble to them, and the chickpea flavor was stronger than the falafel from other shops. The interior of Shouk’s falafel was greener than that of competitors, too, likely on account of more parsley and cilantro in the dough that made for a satisfying bite. Moreover, the rustic and bright flavor is what I’d expect from a homemade falafel.
If anything, the crispy coating on the outside was a little thick and was slightly too cooked for my taste. These gripes are minor, though — I’d wager that few customers dissect their falafel the same way that I had to on this particular day — and the falafel was, all things considered, excellent. The toppings were simple but delicious as well.
I asked for their classic falafel sandwich, which was served with diced tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and pickled cabbage. The pita was delicious — rustic and wholesome, like the falafel — and the tahini was flavorful — the perfect thickness, with a subtle heartiness that added dimension. After I finished, I went back for a side of more falafel with tahini for $4.75. Like I said, I love falafel.
The cardamom cookie may not have been a standout but was good in its own right. I’ll confess that I’ve made cardamom-spiced chocolate chip cookies myself, and Shouk’s are definitely better — I’m still playing with the recipe, though, so stay tuned.
Shouk’s other main advantage is the diversity of food it offers: Most of the “big-name” falafel shops are only falafel shops. Shouk, though, is no one-trick pony; even before it introduced falafel earlier this month, it had been voted D.C.’s third-best new fast-casual restaurant for entrees like the cauliflower bowl. I’ll refrain from making a final judgment about where Shouk ranks in the falafel pecking order of D.C. — my affection for all of our city’s falafel offerings runs far too deep for me to be able to make an impartial decision. I will, however, say this: Shouk is definitely in the running.