Middle Eastern fare at home and abroad

Zaki's falafel sandwich - the middle-eastern veggiterian staple of deep fried garbanzo patties rolled in pita with pickels, tomatos and tahini sauce. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Eat falafel at Zaki but make your own hummus

Over the years I've had some truly lousy falafel in San Antonio, most recently last spring when, craving the combination of deep-fried garbanzos and parsley rolled in a pita, like a Middle Eastern burrito or its Anglicized cousin, the ubiquitous "wrap," I ventured into a hole-in-the-wall Greek joint on the Far Northwest Side of town. There I was served two over-cooked, nugget-sized falafel patties atop a too-thick-to-roll pita, with a lone tomato wedge and lifeless taziki sauce on the side (in place of the sesame-seed based tahini sauce which they had run out of).

Since then, however, my luck has changed and I've had nothing but praise for the places I've visited that serve falafel `see "When in Rome," July 28-August 2, 2004`. The good fortune continues with the addition of Zaki, a newly opened Middle Eastern eatery hidden next to a pawnshop on Babcock just outside of Loop 410. The generic strip-mall exterior belies its welcoming, homey interior.

Zaki, incidentally, means delicious in Arabic, and in the case of their falafel sandwich the name certainly applies, as it is everything one could want in a falafel: several large and crispy - not crunchy - patties, doused with the requisite tahini sauce, accompanied with slices of tomatoes and pickle slivers, and rolled in an oversized pita. At $2.99 it's practically a steal. (Best to eat in, however, or hold the tahini sauce if you are planing on ordering take-out.)


4263 NW Loop 410, Ste 100
Hours: 11am-9pm daily
Major credit cards
Handicapped accessible
Falafel isn't the only vegan-friendly dish Zaki offers. Their spinach pie has more dough and a bigger onion kick than its philo-layered Greek relative. Zaki's tabouli salad, a combination of burgoul (cracked wheat), parsley, and tomatoes, is light and lemony; unlike versions I've had elsewhere, it isn't bogged down by too much olive oil. (This, too, can get messy when ordered as take-out.) Their daily special, when it's spinach, green bean, or okra-based, sounds promising, but they've run out of the goods by the time I arrived for a late dinner.

Based on a friend's suggestion I haven't tried their hummus. Call it hearsay, but he feels their blend of garbanzos, tahini sauce, and lemon juice is bland and lifeless. Personally, I prefer mine with a strong kick of vampire-discouraging garlic; besides, hummus, like refried beans or pasta with marinara sauce, is so easy to make (see recipe) that I feel foolish ordering it when eating out.

Quick-and-easy hummus

1 can garbanzo beans, drained (reserve the liquid)

3 T tahini sauce (available at natural food stores or your local Middle Eastern market)

Juice of 2-3 (or more) lemons

Several garlic cloves, to taste (roast for fuller flavor)

A dash of cumin and/or paprika

Pita bread

Place the garbanzo beans along with the tahini sauce, lemons, and garlic cloves in a blender or food processor (I've used both and found the mini-processor to be best-suited). Pulse until blended; the mixture should be smooth and creamy, the consistency of whipped potatoes, and able to retain its shape. If it's too thick add some of the reserve liquid, or more lemon juice. Serve along with pita wedges or rolled up in a sandwich.

I've had much more difficulty whipping up baba ghanouje, the holy grail of Middle Eastern cuisine. Made with puréed eggplant instead of garbanzos, Zaki's baba ghanouje hints at the distinctive tang of the purple vegetable's characteristic bitterness, without falling victim to it - or resulting in a salty, oily mush. And since they're already cooking up some eggplant, why not slice it, spice it, and offer it in a sandwich? After each visit to Zaki I come up with one more dish or combination I'd like to see them add to their menu, such as a sampler plate of their appetizers, with a little bit of everything, or, just in time for the cool (ha!) fall weather, lentil soup. And should they have leftover pitas at the end of the day they could cut 'em up, fry 'em, and add them to some romaine lettuce, tomatoes, and parsley for a nice fattoush salad. Mmmm!

Talal Hussein, one of the owners, says Zaki is going to revamp the menu within a month or two to incorporate more of their patrons' suggestions, including multiple requests for Greek and Mediterranean dishes. A Palestinian immigrant originally from Jordan, Hussein's been pleasantly surprised at the warm reception they've received from San Antonio's Middle Eastern community - and even more so at the number of customers they've had from other communities. Although conversation over a hearty meal can go a long way towards breaking down boundaries and promoting understanding, I'm not about to suggest that anti-Arab prejudice will lessen over plates of falafel and shawarma, as much as I wish it were the case. (Has the proliferation of Mexican restaurants lessened border violence or improved access to quality education for Raza?) Still, good food is good food is good food. Given its promising start, Zaki should have no difficulty living up to its name. •

By Alejandro Pérez

To buy ingredients for this recipe, try Sahara Middle East Grocery, 5528 Evers. It carries fresh pitas, tahini sauce, and a variety of other Middle Eastern products.