Dirt-cheap falafel sandwiches are something of an East Village institution (insofar as there are any East Village institutions left these days), so the shuttering of Snackalicious Cinderella Falafel on Second Avenue last January was greeted with a certain degree of consternation. Consternation turned to cautious optimism when Cheep’s Pita Creations opened in its place in March, promising $2 falafel sandwiches. Mamoun’s, of course, has sat around the corner since 2006, and enjoyed the generally solid reputation previously established by its original location on Macdougal Street. But giants (even little giants) are meant to be slayed, so we wondered if Cheep’s had the deep-fried balls to do the job. In an East Village falafel battle, who would prevail, Goliath or David?
First up was Cheep’s. To get a falafel sandwich at Cheep’s, you place your order with the cashier and then it’s filled by a counter worker who asks you what you want on your sandwich. There’s an array of lettuce, onion salad, purple cabbage, and marinated carrots to choose from, so the best option is to just say you want the whole lot.
It’s a lot for $2. Or it is theoretically: when we ordered, the surly counter dude, distracted by his dwindling falafel supply, hurriedly dumped three chickpea balls into the cavity of a whole pita, slopped on some onions, iceberg lettuce, and tahini sauce, and shoved the thing over the counter. By the time we realized he’d forgotten the cabbage and carrots, he’d moved on to the next customer in the growing line. Since it was a $2 falafel sandwich, we let it go and walked out, the sandwich, clad in a wispy paper wrapper, cooling rapidly in the breeze.
Despite the lack of fillings, the sandwich boasted impressive heft, and was definitely a good deal for $2. The pita was of the Wonder Bread variety, fluffy but bland. The sandwich tasted of little but onions, which smothered the tahini sauce’s whispers for help. The falafel, which had the exact dimensions of a golf ball, was pretty good, crispy on the outside, soft and pale green on the inside, mildly seasoned, and very, very filling. Eaten alone or served with some hummus and/or tahini sauce, they’d be better than pretty good. But in sandwich form, they were undermined by their lackluster co-stars.
Mamoun’s $2.50 falafel sandwich is everything that Cheep’s is not. It’s served in a half-pita that’s thin and stingy-looking, and the falafel patties are smashed almost flat before being packed in with lettuce, tomato, and tahini sauce. The finished product is wrapped tightly in foil so that it stays warm for an impressively long time. When it’s finally unwrapped, it is glorious, irrefutable proof that quantity is no match for quality.
While the pita may look anemic, it actually tastes like something that came out of an oven, and offers solid, unobtrusive accompaniment to the falafel, which is fried a few shades beyond golden-brown to dark, malignant perfection. The insides of the patty are a lush, vibrant green, the color of good olive oil. The taste is earthy, complex, and deeply savory, and well-complemented by the fat, surprisingly flavorful tomato slices and the romaine lettuce.
As a bonus, all of the sandwich’s components were distributed evenly, so that every bite yielded falafel, tahini, and tomato. And while the Cheep’s sandwich appears to be bigger, Mamoun’s stuffs far more into its unassuming half-pita. In terms of satiety, comparing the two is like comparing a bowl of Rice Krispies to a bowl of Grape Nuts.
So while we give Cheep’s props for its big old fluffy balls and excellent value, Mamoun’s has the definitive edge, thanks to its quality ingredients and the manner in which they’re packed into their pita shell. And while we normally like having a choice of what goes into a sandwich, Mamoun’s no-frills ordering system is preferable to being disappointed by the whims of the Cheep’s staff. Giants, its true, are meant to be slayed. But there are some who deserve to be left standing.
22 Saint Marks Place
Cheep’s Pita Creations
129 Second Avenue