#1: I Dream of Falafel
#2: Oasis Cafe
#3: Olive Mediterranean Grill
201 N Clark St #1D, Chicago, IL 60601 (map); 312-726-1234
Time to get back to work. After a long holiday season spent gorging on plump birds and butter-laden desserts, a lot of Chicagoans will be returning back to their desk jobs in the Loop with resolutions to keep. We're not that interested in diets, but if you're looking for an area to load up on lunchtime vegetables, downtown is a surprisingly good place to do so. In fact, though we may be famous for deep dish and overloaded hot dogs, one of the most common dishes to found in the Loop is a vegetarian dish. We speak of falafel.
Chicago may still take its sausage seriously (check here if you don't believe), but the red hot is not the lunch of choice for the majority of workers in the Loop. A walk around downtown shows that workers have an insatiable appetite for Mediterranean restaurants. Though many of those "healthy" places still dish out huge platters of carved meat and overloaded salads, there are also a shocking number of falafel sandwiches. We wanted to eat them all.
The best falafel sandwiches are a mix of textures and temperatures, from crunchy fresh Jerusalem salads, to warm and fluffy pita. But at the center of each is the falafel itself: a fried ball of ground chickpeas mixed with spices and loads of herbs, which features a crisp exterior that gives way to a tender and well seasoned interior.
But which place is best? In the end, we decided to try as many as we possibly could. (Hey, someone had to do it, right?) While the expedition proves that the absolute best falafel in Chicago isn't found in the Loop, the offerings were—with a few exceptions—surprisingly solid, and in some cases, shockingly good.
We awarded points for four different factors:
- Falafel: 20 points. A crispy exterior is a must, though not too crunchy. The insides should be well-seasoned and tender, with a definite chickpea flavor.
- Pita: 10 points. Ideally, the pita should be soft and warm, but should also hold up to the other ingredients. Some places used laffa instead, which should be tender and unobtrusive.
- Sauces, Toppings, Etc.: 10 points. Kind of a catch-all category for the extras, including hummus, tahini, pickles, and any other veg they wanted to throw on. While a plethera of options is great, balance and restraint are also key.
- Overall impression: 10 points. Sure, there may be great components, but how does it all work together? Is the sandwich constructed carefully?
- Total: 50 points.
12 places were picked out for featuring falafel prominently on their menu. The restaurants ranged from modern fast-casual concepts, to literal hole-in-the-wall family joints. One, in fact, was located in the back of the jewelry store.
- Olive Mediterranean Grill
- Pita Express
- Haifa Cafe
- First Jaffa
- Tahini Mediterranean Cafe
- I Dream of Falafel
- Roti Mediterranean Grill
- Mezza Mediterranean Grill
- Oasis Cafe