At first glance, the tiny Falafel & Grill looks like any other fast food Middle Eastern joint. Unremarkable at best. But notice the large, handmade vertical spits of chicken and beef up front, or the fluffy, fried-to-order falafel. The secret is pretty clear once you descend the narrow staircase to the underground kitchen. Here, those falafel balls begin as mashed and ground chickpeas, flavored with parsley and jalapenos, along with spices such as cumin, curry and coriander. Once orders come in, they are quickly formed around a special spoon, then fried until crisp outside, moist within.
Same goes for the excellent shawarma, which has to be assembled every morning.
"We have the fresh chicken breast. We marinate it for 24 hours. And then after that, we take it out, and we stack it on top of the stick for the Shawarma and we cook it," said Baker Ali, the owner of Falafel & Grill.
And cooked it is, until slightly charred and crisp on the outside, eventually placed into sandwiches or salads, lightly dusted with reddish sumac. They also make a beef version, consisting of 75 percent beef and 25 percent lamb - kind of like your neighborhood gyro, except these are handmade.
"It's a lot of labor. You know, it's a lot of work. You gotta slice it thin. You know, it takes more than one day to do," he said.
There are combo platters here, served with rice and vegetables plus an assortment of Middle Eastern spreads and dips. But it's the shawarma that gets them coming back, and Ali prefers to get his done simply, in a sandwich.
"I like it with garlic sauce. Pickle and tomato only. That's it. Toasted on both sides. Perfect," said Ali.
They also sell gyros, but that recognizable cone - like so many throughout Chicago - isn't made in-house. They also have vegetarian sampler plates, by the way, so it's not all about the beef and chicken.
Falafel & Grill
1317 N. Milwaukee Ave.