Food Issue - Bow down to the Falafel King

Why I'm hopelessly devoted to Atlanta's falafel royalty

Thursday October 25, 2012 04:00 am EDT

I'm obsessed with falafel.

My fixation, however, is not simply with any falafel. In all honesty, I'm indifferent to most variations. That's because Falafel King makes the best falafel in Atlanta and quite possibly the entire world. At least, that's how it plays out in my head.

I recognize that to others it might not even be the best falafel in this town. In 2011, the AJC found its favorite falafel at Mediterranean Bakery. Two years ago, this publication picked Jerusalem Bakery in Alpharetta as the city's best. Recently a co-worker told me to try Pita Palace, saying it was better than Falafel King. He is wrong.

But whether or not any of these opinions have validity is beside the point. It doesn't matter to me, as my affinity for this odd little joint runs deeper than most will ever know. I'm a lost cause.

Let me explain.

As I enter my seventh year as an Atlanta resident, I can count on one hand the local establishments — food or otherwise — that have shaped my experience here. There are only a few things I believe in with absolute conviction, and among them is this regal chickpea concoction.

Falafel King is nestled in the heart of Emory Village and can be a tight squeeze once you're inside, only comfortably holding 10 or so people. AJC dining critic John Kessler once referred to the compact establishment as a "hatbox." The number of customers waiting for falafel, shawarma, curry, and sushi usually exceeds the building's capacity. Inside, the counter holds a variety of out-of-place knickknacks, including one of those mounted animatronic singing fish. There are some woefully outdated nutrition posters, and in the background, a nondescript collection of meditative songs plays and has been playing for as long I've eaten here.

Jane and Nicholas Nam run Falafel King. The husband-and-wife co-owners are South Korean immigrants who saved up to buy the once Israeli-owned Lebanese restaurant and took a crash course in falafelogy upon purchasing the restaurant in the mid-2000s. The pair faithfully splits the duties. Nicholas helms the mini-sushi bar. I occasionally enter his domain, but for the most part I communicate with Jane. She handles cashier duty. More importantly, she is the falafel keeper.

Jane makes the falafel fresh in front of the customers, shaping her handmade mix into one-inch balls before dropping them into a sizzling, inconspicuous wok. Moments later, they're scooped out. The result is a crunchy, blackened outer shell surrounding a juicy, savory center. It's the vegetarian equivalent of a medium-rare porterhouse cooked to perfection.

Five to six falafels are delicately packed into a white pita and minimally dressed with a bed of freshly diced tomato and cucumber. I'd also recommend a drizzle of tahini and a dash of spicy mayo or Sriracha. My pro-tip, however, would be the D.I.Y. falafel plate. It's a bit more work to construct your own sandwich, but the reward is more falafel. I naturally prefer that route.

But my Falafel King reverence extends beyond the food itself to the experience, which always includes the Nams. Jane's timid but unwavering smile and her enthusiastic "Hi Maaax!" greet me every time I walk through the door. She even recognizes my voice when I place a take-out order despite her perpetually frenzied state during lunch hours. I rarely strike up conversations with those serving me, which means I don't often receive a regular's perks. But despite my quiet demeanor, Jane and Nicholas often reward my continual patronage with a free drink or baklava.

Jane is as comforting as her homemade falafel, holding steady no matter what changes occur in my life. With all the major food institutions Atlanta has to offer, this petite two-person operation has become more than just my favorite hole-in-the-wall. It's my haven.

For years, I've made it my personal mission to spread the glory of the Falafel Kingdom far and wide. It started out as a flavor of the month, a step up from the D.U.C. dining hall, Dooley's Depot, or any other sort of on-campus cuisine that Emory offered. Only a quarter mile off campus, the restaurant offered an escape from the mediocre meals comprising my college diet. Priced at only $3.95, the falafel sandwich is a steal no matter how you view it: as a college student, an unpaid intern, or as a fully functioning member of society. Truth be told, I'd probably pay double or triple for that sandwich these days — just don't tell them that.

At age 24, my love affair has grown to obsessive levels. I now treat Falafel King's namesake with the utmost sanctity. Some might say this falafel found the quickest way to my heart. Me? I'm just a happy subject serving in the King's court.

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