Photography: Anna Knott
No one knows who was first inspired to tuck falafel—balls of deep-fried chickpeas that, one theory has it, began as a Lenten dish popular among the Copts of Egypt—into warm pita pockets. But piled with cucumber, tomato, and lettuce and dripping with tahini, this meal in your hand has become a Chicago staple. More than that, it’s spawned a bona fide fritter frenzy.
Here’s how the main competitors stack up—and where to get the best in town.
3202 N. Broadway, 773-525-0052; see eatfalafill.com for other locations
Classic falafel $5.50
Falafill bills itself as a from-scratch kitchen, and the effort shows in the fresh and authentic panoply of salads and spreads at its mezza bar. Even more impressive, though, is that the falafel balls are perfectly crispy on the outside and nutty, well mashed, and not too soft on the inside. Plus, the pita here boasts a crispy-then-chewy texture. Verdict: This flavorful wonder is Chicago’s best.
Dawali Mediterranean Kitchen
1625 N. Halsted St., 312-944-5800; see dawalikitchen.com for other locations
Regular falafel $4.25
A regular sandwich at this smallish storefront delivers the expected chunks of cuke and tomato, but if you’re looking for a bite with more heft, pony up $5.25 for the heavier, earthier one with eggplant, french fries, and cauliflower. With either, the tahini on the side promises an intense (and addictive) burst of sesame flavor that will make you want more pita for dipping.
I Dream of Falafel
331 S. Franklin St., 312-913-9660; see idreamoffalafel.com for other locations
Falafel wrap $6.50
You might be dismayed to find a tortilla-like wrap called laffa instead of pita, but this assembly line franchise (maddening during lunch) redeems such slapdash treatment by upping the flavor ante of its falafel. Hearty and sporting more spice than the others on this list, these patties beg to be pulled out and eaten all by themselves. (A side order is $2.)
Naf Naf Grill
1739 Freedom Dr., Naperville, 630-904-7200; see nafnafgrill.com for other locations
Falafel pita $5.49
Soon to expand to seven locations, Naf Naf bakes fresh pita throughout the day. The sandwich pockets are warm and tantalizingly soft, making for some thick bites (you won’t mind a bit). Unusually mushy falafel balls threaten to make the pockets too gooey, but a slaw of cucumber and red cabbage provides a nice foil.
1411 N. Wells St., 312-944-0459
Falafel sandwich $6.25
A standby’s a standby, and Old Jerusalem has been rolling out falafel balls since 1976. They inexplicably recall a well-made meatloaf, with just enough spice, a little sweetness, and a certain homey feeling. Simple iceberg lettuce and tomato round out this cozy pita, and a light, lemony sauce tops it off. Get a side of lentil soup, too ($3.50).
3910 Dempster Street, Skokie, 847-677-0211; see pita-inn.com for all locations
Falafel sandwich, $3.59
Pita Inn’s much vaunted version is on the skimpy side, with only three extra-garlicky fritters per pocket. Get ’em extra hot on a Business Lunch Special (a huge pile of meat, falafel, rice, salad, and pita for $4.95) instead.
2521 N. Clark St., 312-638-9151; see chicagofalafel.com for all locations
Falafel sandwich, $3.75
A cold sandwich can be refreshing on a warm day (and it’s a huge portion for the price), but the cucumber ratio is higher than you might be accustomed to.
1406 W. Belmont Ave., 773-327-0000
Falafel Supreme sandwich, $6
Lots of pickled vegetables overpower the falafel patties and steal their crunch. The super-friendly service, though, is a plus.
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To anyone furious about a glaring falafel omission:
There are a ton of falafel sandwiches in Chicago. It’s one of the things that makes the city great. We tried the ones we felt had a good chance at being the best—but we don’t claim to have tried every single falafel in town.
Is there a great sandwich we missed? Let us know! We’re always hungry for more.