But what a beginning. One bite and I knew it was probably the best falafel I had ever eaten. Perfectly crispy on the outside and light as the proverbial feather on the inside, laced with green from an abundance of herbs.
Of course I dunked it in the accompanying tahini and hot sauce, but it would have been flavorful and delicious on its own.
Fresh bright flavor is the keynote of the food at the Falafel Hut on Santa Rosa’s Fourth Street. After eating the falafel, and then discovering the owners of the restaurant were from Gaza, I had to return to taste everything and talk with them about their homeland.
As I approached the restaurant for my return trip a few days later, I saw a friend lunching on the outdoor patio. We exchanged greetings and she commented, “This mint lemonade is just like in Palestine.” And her companion said, “You’ve only eaten the falafel? An adventure awaits you.”
And he was right. When I announced to the young man waiting on tables, Mohammed al Shawwa, he brought an assortment of little dishes filled with appetizers—hummus, baba ganoush, dolmas, olives, little pickles and bits of fuchsia-colored turnip, yogurt with mint, cucumber and garlic, falafel and tabbouleh.
The baba ganoush is a standout, so smokey wonderful that I wanted to lick the plate clean.
“We make 95% of the food here, fresh every day,” al Shawwa said, noting that he and his father, Asem, begin their prep at 7am. “Even the baklava and other desserts. We only purchase the nut and chocolate-covered halvah,” he added.
While I ate my way through the appetizers, al Shawwa waited on dining-in and take-out customers with lightning speed. When I asked for more things to sample, he brought me an assortment of kebabs on yellow rice, the most delicious of which was kefta kebab, ground lamb and beef, tender and permeated with spices. There was also a large salad, full of various vegetables, chickpeas, olives and mint, and dressed simply with olive oil and lemon juice.
Once the lunch rush was over, al Shawwa sat down with me and we talked over little cups of Turkish coffee. I learned that his father, Asem, had immigrated to the U.S. in 2016 and began working at the original Falafel Hut in San Rafael, which is owned by Mohammed al Shawwa’s uncle. Two years ago, Asem al Shawwa opened the Santa Rosa spin-off. And then Mohammed al Shawwa, his mother and his four sisters and brothers were able to leave Gaza just weeks before the war erupted.
“It was the hardest thing I ever tried in my life,” he said.
First the family had to get permits to enter Israel, where they could possibly obtain visas to leave Gaza for America. Things went smoothly for all of them except Mohammed al Shawwa, who wasn’t able to get his Jerusalem permit until the morning they were scheduled to leave. Finally, at about 5am, he got a text saying he could enter Jerusalem, where he received a visa.
That day, they left Palestine through the Egyptian border crossing, traveled from there to Turkey and eventually reached Sonoma County. Although their entire family is now safely back together, they left behind many relatives—uncles, aunts and cousins. For 10 days, they lost contact with family back in Gaza, during which time his uncle’s apartment in an upscale neighborhood of Gaza City was reduced to rubble. Now that they are once again able to communicate, they have learned that their displaced relatives are still alive in southern Gaza.
So life goes on, and Mohammed al Shawwa cheerfully greets a stream of customers who appear to return again and again. The menu is extensive and varied—lamb or chicken shawarma served in pita bread or as entrees, house-made beverages, soft drinks, a small selection of wines by the glass or bottle and much more. As my friend’s dining partner said, “An adventure awaits you.”
Falafel Hut is located at 701 4th St., Santa Rosa, and 1115 4th St., San Rafael. For more information, visit falafel hut.co.