This week two of my co-workers and I trekked down to the bottom of Potrero Hill for a lunchtime field trip to the Liba Falafel truck. I’d read about it in a Bay Area falafel roundup article in sfgate.com and was curious.
I’m a fan of the food truck concept, which seems to be all the rage right now, at least on the West Coast. The new food truck is a far cry from what one might think of when they think if a food truck, i.e. it’s not one of those old pickup trucks with the dimpled silver fold-up doors on each side usually parked outside of construction sites that sells bad packaged sandwiches, lukewarm coffee, stale cheese danish in plastic wrap and pint-sized school milk boxes to dudes that spend half the day on scaffolding.
Apparently taco trucks have been a big thing in California for quite some time. They weren’t around when I was a kid in SoCal, but have since emerged as a a pretty huge phenomenon. Taking a cue from the taco trucks, new food trucks are now popping up all over selling all sorts of stuff–from crepes to Korean barbeque.
Anyway, back to falafel. Apparently the Liba truck was modeled after falafel bars in Amsterdam. It’s a sort of “build-your-own” falafel sandwich. This is a new concept to me–I’m used to East Coast falafel shops where you get your falafel sandwich made for you–and it’s usually a pretty standard equation–3-4 falafel balls, cucumber/tomato salad, tahini, sometimes hummus, and I really like when they include pickles. (Cafe Jaffa in Boston’s Back Bay has great pickles on their falafel sandwich.) East Coast falafel sandwiches always seem to be either made on lavash or rolled-up burrito style in a pita that’s about 10-12 inches in diameter. My favorite is from Falafel King in Boston’s Downtown Crossing. It’s tucked away in this hole-in-the-wall food court in the same building as the infamous Tremont Tea Room, a psychic studio. The guy behind the counter at Falafel King always hands out free falafel balls while you’re waiting in line–they’re crisp, perfectly browned and a nice combo of yellow chickpea and green parsley inside. Theirs aren’t perfectly round–they’re more like semi-smooshed balls, but I suspect they have a special scoop for these.
At the two falafel places I’ve tried in the Bay Area (Liba and the Falafel’s Drive In in San Jose), they actually serve their falafel in regular sized pitas, split and filled as a sandwich. I have to say, I’ve never been much of a fan of stuffing sandwich fixins into a hollowed out pita. Why anyone ever started splitting pitas to make a stuffed sandwich, I’ll never know. Once you split the bread, it’s just never really thick enough on either side not to tear–they *always* rip and can’t hold the stuffing, which then falls out and you’re left trying to salvage your sandwich before the entire thing falls apart. Plus, an 8-inch round sandwich is a bit unwieldy to eat–I never quite know how to attack the thing from one bite to another. I have to say I definitely prefer the burrito-style rolled up pita to the split pita–the split just introduces a fundamental design flaw that isn’t super conducive to a sandwich I think.
Having said that, the split pita is sort of necessary for the “build your own” style at the Liba falafel truck. They lob about an inch off the top, stuff 3 falafel balls and some tahini in the bottom of the pita, place the whole thing in a square paper wrapper open on two sides and then you’re left to choose from a variety of really interesting toppings from their condiment bar.
And it’s the fresh condiments that really make these sandwiches, I have to say. They have some really great toppings–from the standard hummus to olive orange relish with thyme. They all sounded so good, I proceeded to start stuffing a combination of everything I thought sounded good individually into my pita. When I commented to truck owner/chef Gail Lillian that I was piling so many of the condiments into my pita, they couldn’t all possibly taste good together, she remarked that they actually all usually work well together and that you can’t really go wrong with any combination. I was frankly skeptical since I’d piled all of the following into my pita: cabbage strawberry basil slaw, roasted eggplant in tomato sauce, red cabbage with black sesame seed, beets with lemon and thyme, rosemary peanuts, pickled fried onion, hummus and raita. How was eggplant and peanuts and strawberries and beets and yogurt supposed to go together?
Well, Gail was right–the combination with the falafel was all really delicious. I did end up grabbing a fork and sort of stirring up everything inside my pita pocket and breaking down the falafel balls so that everything could be mixed together, and to my surprise all those flavors really worked together. My pocket did start splitting about 2/3rd of the way through the sandwich from my tendency to overstuff, so I sort of ate it with a combo use the fork-bite the pita-tear the pita alternation. Next time, I’ll have to try the falafel on its own to get more of a taste for it without all the condiments, but everything was fresh and pretty healthful and being a beet freak, I was excited they had beets, which of course turned the inside of my sandwich pink and probably didn’t help in preventing a pita tear. The truck also serves shoestring sweet potato fries with garlic, lime and cilantro–which I refrained from getting myself despite being tempted, but my colleagues got–I had a couple and they were definitely worth trying.
This truck is definitely worth checking out–I expect there will be frequent Thursday field trips from our office since we all left impressed and full. The truck can be found at different spots throughout San Francisco and the Easy Bay on weekdays. For their latest locations, check them on Twitter at @LIBAfalafel.