Haifa Falafel and the complex history of Mediterranean food in Ann Arbor

Wednesday, November 18, 2015 - 6:01pm

This year, I decided to switch up the focus of my food column, from opinion pieces and the occasional restaurant review, to reportage on local restaurants. Ann Arbor is home to an increasing number of restaurants, many of them off-campus and overlooked, run by people preparing versions of their home country’s food. I’d like, if possible, to expose my readers to as many of them as possible, and document the extraordinary journeys and work that have gone into building these restaurants.

When a professor of mine, who had lived in Israel, told me to check out Haifa Falafel, I headed over immediately. Twenty bus stops down Washtenaw Avenue, I found the tiny shop. Painted on the storefront windows were the phrases “MEDITERRANEAN FOOD” and “HAIFA STYLE FALAFEL.”  I had called the owner, Ali Usman, beforehand to schedule the interview, but when I arrived he was still hustling in the kitchen. I took a seat and took my standard atmosphere notes: jangly music playing, colorful lanterns hanging, smell of sumac wafting. Pasted on the walls were photos of Haifa, Israel, including its famous Bahá'í temple (Baha’i is a religion, of Persian origin, that emphasizes the spiritual unity of humankind). Usman prepared us two chicken shawarmas and a plate of crisp, mahogany-colored falafel, and we sat down to eat. I ignored the food at first — I wanted to know everything about this restaurant, and him.

“Where are you from?”

“How did this place start?

“Are you Baha’i?”

Tall, lean and intense, Usman seemed a bit puzzled. He gave me the basics: He’s an Israeli-Arab from outside Haifa, who, as an 18-year-old, followed his two brothers to Ann Arbor to open this shop, even though none of them had any formal training. His two brothers have since married and left, leaving him in charge. He’s not Baha’i.

But that’s as much as he’d say about himself.

“Talk about the food,” he urged me. “Don’t talk about me, or all of … this,” gesturing towards the lanterns and the photos and the speakers.  

At this point, a customer sitting nearby pulled up a chair to offer his input.

“This is the best food in Ann Arbor,” he said. “The best falafel I’ve ever had. I come here two or three times a week. Make sure you take that down.”  

After eating there myself, I can see why. The terms “Mediterranean” and “Middle Eastern” are too vague. Take the falafel. Each city in Israel has its own variety: Jerusalem falafel are big, dense and green from copious amounts of chopped parsley. In Tel Aviv, they’re rolled smaller, but are still green. Haifa-style falafel are gumball-sized, golden and have a looser texture.

The ones Usman prepares are some of the best I’ve ever had — crispy-creamy, garlicky, great even outside of a sandwich. He takes great pride in preparing them, which also means that he can’t always get them to that perfect color.

“I make them myself; it’s a whole process,” he said. “I can’t get it right every time.”

Another non-downtown specialty of his is majadara: lentils cooked with toothsome, nutty bulgur wheat. But there are some things that Usman can’t translate from Haifa to Ann Arbor. In Haifa, falafel are typically stuffed into a half-circle of pita that’s squeezed open.

“We still can’t find a good enough pita to do that,” he said, in between mouthfuls. “One time, we had a grocery store try to bake it, and they sent us triangular pitas. Now, we just use flat ones and wrap it.”

Any attempt to bring hyper-regional food to Michigan is bound to run into problems like that. More surprising is Usman’s customer base. Israeli-Arabs and Palestinians make up just one part of the local Arab community, many of whom are from Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. But Usman told me that Arabs actually are a minority of his business — Jews and vegetarians flock there in huge numbers.  

Either way, Usman has a fierce pride in what he’s doing — feeding people, and exposing them to food that he doesn’t think they’ll be getting downtown. As I walked out the door, his farewell line said it all.

“One more thing: Jerusalem Garden has got nothing on us.”