Restaurants sometimes suffer from a syndrome I call "menu hesitation." Classic symptoms include offering a tempting selection of specialties that teases the adventurous and curious with things such as Armenian pizza ($3.95), flatbread ($3.95) topped with herby za'atar -- a Middle Eastern spice blend -- and crunchy falafel nuggets ($5.95), then lists seemingly incongruous dishes.
For instance, Caesar salad with grilled chicken breast ($6.95) and a honey-baked turkey sandwich ($6.95) are just OK, but items such as these dilute the allure of out-of-the ordinary cuisines intrepid diners seek because these restaurants enrich the restaurant landscape.
At O'Falafel, these mainstream menu additions are few and far between. Nonetheless, their presence exposes patrons, especially those new or unfamiliar to the cuisine, to opt out as one woman did: She ordered a generic chicken Caesar salad in a place that mixes, kneads and bakes its own fantastic pita bread.
O'Falafel's menu spans what people casually refer to as the "Middle East," which, in reality, is a huge swath of earth stretching from the Eastern Mediterranean shores to the mountains that merge Central and South Asia. Within this range is a mélange of cultures and, subsequently, cuisines that share similarities. Yet they have their own variations and nuances according to climate, tradition and the preferences of many a grandmother. The flavors are subtly layered and complex. They hit the palate in a chord of herbs, spices, garlic -- and the all-important lemon.
Which leads to another telltale sign of menu hesitation -- muted flavors that belie the true vibrancy of Middle-Eastern cuisine. A friend of mine stopped in soon after the restaurant's opening and noticed one of the chefs sitting down to his own meal. When she asked why his humble yet enticing dish of saucy beans and day-old bread wasn't on the menu, the gentleman replied that it was something they thought would not sell.
In O'Falafel's case, it's a belief that a Utah audience isn't open to the pungency of certain dishes. But it's the addition of garlic and lemon that makes the bland puréed garbanzos and sesame paste of the familiar hummus suddenly pop. O'Falafel's version ($5.95) is wonderfully smooth, but lacks that vibrancy of allium and acidity.
Likewise, the pilaf that accompanies hearty servings of eggplant and ground meat-filled moussaka ($10.95) and succulent shwarma platters ($10.95) arrives in a glowing yellow hue. But take a bite and there's a noticeable lack of flavor. The entrées themselves are well-executed, but beg for more garlic, onions and salt to add some complexity.
Restaurants, chain restaurants especially, abound in Sugar House. Come lunchtime, traffic clogs 2100 South where O'Falafel now sits in the former Saltimbocca location. The large, airy space features murals of various ancient cities and desert landscapes. Customers order from a counter, take a number and wait for their dishes to be delivered.
For the most part, service is fast, but a little confused for large parties, such as the one I took during dinner service when appetizers came out after the entrées.
But it's a convenient location for midday sustenance and makes sense for a cuisine that blends easily with the concept of food-on-the-go.
And it shows off O'Falafel's strength: pita and flatbreads. Periodically, diners can see the dough being wrought through a machine that shapes batches of them. I could eat a whole stack of them fresh from the oven.
The above-mentioned Armenian pizza is savory, ground-beef-topped flatbread that requires subtlety of seasoning. The namesake falafel ($5.95) is crunchy and actually well-seasoned. The round nuggets could do with a change into a football-like shape to increase the surface area, and therefore achieve that desirable, addictive crunch. But the enveloping pita bread makes one temporarily forget about shape.
The woodsy scent of dried thyme wafts from the za'atar flatbread -- the herb, worked into a paste with ground sesame seeds (a Lebanese version perhaps more familiar to Salt Lake City diners includes ground, bitter sumac berries) -- adds another dimension to the chewy and slight sweetness of the dough.
In other words, O'Falafel has its strengths. But it has even more potential. I can't blame its proprietors for this menu hesitation. In an era of "the customer is always right" philosophy, some cooks and chefs have had to acquiesce to ignorance to stay in business. But the success of Mazza, and Salt Lake City's other Middle Eastern restaurants, should signal that we're ready for these things -- and more of them. Out of all the restaurants that occupied O'Falafel's current space, this one has a real chance. And to let it show off its inherent, delectable flavors, it has be up to us, the diners, to coax them out of the demure generic shadows and into the brightness and complexity of Middle Eastern cuisine.
O'Falafel needs it. Frankly, so do we.
Bottom line » Casual Middle Eastern eatery that's easy on the wallet -- and its use of garlic, which is a good or bad thing depending on personal dining preferences. House-made pita and flatbreads are stronger options along with the namesake falafel.
Location » 790 E. 2100 South, Salt Lake City; 801-487-7747
Hours » Monday to Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Children's menu » No
Prices » $
Liquor » None
Corkage » N/A
Reservations » None
Takeout » Yes
Wheelchair access » Yes
Outdoor dining » No
On-site parking » Yes
Credit cards » All major