20th and Market
Center City, Philadelphia Pa
If you have ever been on this particular corner during the workweek, you have probably wondered, “what is this crazy cart guy doing here?” and, “is it on fire or does he have a charcoal grill going in there?” The large plumes of smoke can be seen wafting off of the cart from two blocks away and can be smelled just as far. The reason this scent travels so far, be it brisk winter or swampy summer here in Philadelphia, is because it is the smell of charcoal perfection. Simply put, a crazy artisan at work.
There will be a line when you get there. If there are 6 people in line, expect a 20-30 minute wait. That’s just the way it is. He WILL NOT rush his food. You WILL sit there uncomfortably hoping he serves you; it is beyond worth it. His cart is hands-down the most meticulously decorated (and most thoroughly well-kept cart) in the city, with garlic and onion ropes hanging, plants all around it and he even has a Bose Wave stereo pumping out some crazy Eastern European tunes. He’s moving around in there like a ninja in a dojo: dropping falafels in the fryer, checking every single piece of chicken on the grill, moving them around, pouring ladlefuls of water on the coals to steam, freshening all 10 or so sides/salads he offers, grilling pitas etc. It is truly a marvel to watch. A truly finicky purveyor of Mediterranean eats, I began referring to him as the Falafel Nazi when I first started going there a couple years ago. Well, it turns out that is what he is referred to - far & wide, and it makes sense. I once watched him deny the person in front of me chicken because they ordered two orders and the other person was not present. He then gave the obviously miffed woman two falafel-only orders and gave me her chicken. Take that, Elaine Bennis!
If you think you are getting a quick cheap meal, like at most carts, you are sorely mistaken. The line is long, and at the going rate of $10 a platter, it’s hardly cheap street food. But tell me, what other center city cart has more to offer than greasy mediocre cheesesteaks and crappy Chinese food? All right, there may be a couple of other falafel carts in center city, but that’s like comparing mealy apples to ripe blood oranges. Having gotten food here on numerous other occasions, I already knew the protocol. I usually get the sandwich (he offers a sandwich or a platter) but today I did not see him make one sandwich; not wanting to anger the falafel gods, I just took what he gave me. I literally didn’t order, just stood there, and watched him. He didn’t speak a word, until I mentioned it was hot, and he was obsessive-compulsively opening and closing the doors of the cart. I absolutely love the insanity of this man. He often goes on rants, yelling to people, grilling them on how much they think it costs to run a cart like his, and “do they know how much these ingredients cost?” People stand there, intimidated and slightly confused, the language barrier being on their side for once. He will then tell you his ingredients “are fresher than in a restaurant,” and that he “spends hours prepping every night.” I believe him and thoroughly appreciate his efforts.
So he lays down a bed of fresh romaine, strategically putting his pasta salad, bean salad, and marinated grapes on separate sides. Second, he lays the falafel and then the grilled chicken on top of that. He finishes all of this with a topping of rich balsamic vinaigrette, and FOUR pieces of bread. Okay the bread is just the culmination of his insanity. Why four? What am I going to do with two pieces of rich, chewy Italian-loaf-style bread, and two thin slivers of wheat? Even I think its too much bread (truth be told, of course I ate all four, mopping up every bit of juice imaginable), but I guess he feels that, “if you don’t want the bread, don’t eat it.” To say this is a hearty lunch is a gross understatement. As far apart in flavor and texture as all of his ingredients may seem, they WORK - amazingly well.
Let me break them down for you. The romaine at the bottom is crispy and fresh, not what you would expect at 12:30 on a 95 degree afternoon. It is the backbone of the salad platter. The pasta salad, new to me at his cart, is rich and creamy and actually had flavor. It was a bit sweet and a bit salty, and had obviously fresh herbs & spices in it, possibly smoked paprika (my #1 spice of all time). The bean salad was a deliciously hearty blend of black beans and black-eyed peas, and it was perfectly dressed with an oil & vinegar marinade. The marinated grapes are on the next level: halved green grapes in an oil & vinegar-type marinade, but one which is decidedly different than the one used on aforementioned bean salad. Today it was sweet, bursting with flavor, and was spotted with the occasional slice of star fruit. I have ONLY seen marinated grapes like these served here. They are amazing.
Have I mentioned the garlic yet? If you don’t like garlic, stay as far away from here as possible. It is possibly the most garlic-y meal I have ever eaten. All of the previously described items probably had a healthy dose of the good bulb, but nothing compared to this falafel. It is so light and crunchy, bursting with green on the inside. I feel as though he almost completely replaces the chickpeas with garlic and parsley…seriously. He must go 50/50 at most. Craziness. It blows other falafel out of the water, but you will pay for it with (literally) a burning on your tongue for the rest of the day. I was wondering why my mouth was tingling around 4 pm, and I was consuming as much water as possible. That garlic is the culprit. It’s just a small price to pay for those moments of culinary bliss, in my opinion.
Last, but not least, the chicken. This chicken is tenderly grilled over a real charcoal grill, after a long dip in his secret marinade. Again, he obsessively watches the chicken, until it is crunchy and char grilled on the tips and he slices it as it comes off the hot grill. It is surely chicken of another world and some of the most tasty chicken I have ever eaten. There is no sauce or any tricks to mask the flavor; the marinade and the char grill speak loudly enough for themselves. It is so moist and delicious, even if you are not normally a chicken lover, you will gladly stab your eating mates with the provided plastic fork if they make any attempts at harvesting your bounty. That final generous drizzle of his vinaigrette brings it all together and finishing it with that abundance of bread makes it all worthwhile. After eating here, I completely understand why Jerry sold out Elaine in that episode.