Universal City, a bridge neighborhood that connects Los Angeles proper with the San Fernando Valley, is surrounded by movie studios and draws tourists in droves to the hilltop theme park and amphitheatre. For the most part, Cahuenga Boulevard suffers from a culinary blackout, but the occasional beam of light sneaks through. The buzz started to build for Joe’s Falafel over the summer, and we eventually signed on for Joe Mattar’s signature fried chickpea balls, and several other comforting Middle Eastern specialties.
Joe Mattar brings a unique perspective to Middle Eastern cuisine. The Tel Aviv native has a Greek mother and Israeli father and blends influences on the wall mounted Joe’s Falafel menu. Mattar said he was the first person to bring the supple Israeli flatbread, laffa, to Los Angeles when he opened Pita Pockets near Cal State-Northridge. He sold the business to move to Arizona, but returned triumphantly in January, 2012, in a far better location. Joe’s Falafel, which shares a strip mall with a copy shop, insurance agency, and beauty supply business, features an open kitchen, marble tables and a patio touting Christmas lights.
When Mattar first imported laffa from his homeland, he produced a white bread. Now that he’s back from Arizona, he switched to whole wheat, which is harder to make but healthier.
They cook the bread to order for an extra $1.50. The laffa’s supple to start, with a crisp bottom, and becomes cracker like as it cools, which you probably won’t allow. Skip laffa and settle for standard issue pita, which often keeps Middle Eastern restaurants from distinction.
Mattar is amenable to making substitutions and encourages variety. We ordered an off-menu combo of falafel and shawarma for the price of a shawarma plate. We enjoyed the falafel, which Mattar fries to order, resulting in golden golf balls with crisp jackets and crumbly, supple cores stained green with parsley and cilantro. Dip in creamy, sesame-strong tahini sauce to cool the falafel and to add flavor. Chicken shawarma was fairly juicy, marinated in amba, turmeric and cumin, and served on yellow saffron-stained rice pilaf. Pickled turnip logs, cabbage, jalapeno and cauliflower technically completed the plate, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t suggest spicy red chile sauce (seeds and all), which is available by request.
Our our return visit, Combo Grill ($14.75) consisted of crusty chicken thigh, chewy beef flap meat and the casing free beef sausage called kafta. We enjoyed the smoky babaghanouj and rich hummus, both finished with olive oil and dusted with paprika. The Greek salad of tomato, lettuce, red onion and feta enlivened the plate. So did more laffa.
Mattar was feeling under the weather, and said he had been eating Lentil Soup ($4.95) to turn the tide. Red lentils turn yellow when you cook them, and they appeared as a slurry, seasoned with cumin, onion and spices. They also make white bean soup on other days.
Like any good order-at-the-counter restaurant, Joe’s Falafel has an impulse buy next to the cash register, housemade baklava. The squares feature crushed walnuts in the middle, crushed pistachios on top of the phyllo, and a noticeable cinnamon flavor, but it was pretty dry, which was fine by me, since syrupy baklava can get too sweet in a hurry.
Universal City is not a neighborhood Angelenos tend to stop when passing from the 818 to 323, and vice versa, but Joe’s Falafel warrants a momentary escape from the 101 freeway.