Casual, low-key Happy Falafel focuses on food over fussy presentation

Contributing Restaurant CriticJune 21, 2012 

  • RESTAURANT REVIEW

    Happy Falafel

    Address: 105 Eastern Ave.

    Phone: (859) 455-8741

    Hours: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sat.

    Online: Happyfalafel.us

    Other: Street parking. No alcoholic beverages. Vegetarian- and family- friendly. Free downtown delivery. Gluten-free options available. Soups and salads $2.49-$3.99; pockets $3.99-$5.49; platters $6.49-$7.49; sides $2.49; homemade baklava available occasionally for $2.99.

Happy Falafel, Lexington's latest Middle Eastern café, is a tiny spot in a virtually invisible location off Main Street behind Thoroughbred Park. Fortunately, strategically placed clapboard signs and a brightly painted façade make it hard to miss, something no one in our Mediterranean-crazed town would want to do because the food is fine, fresh and delicious.

Like many places of this genre, Happy Falafel is casual and low-key. Everything is served with plastic utensils and on paper plates, neither of which makes for easy eating or particularly attractive presentation. Service is often slow, especially during a time-sensitive lunch break, and can be scatterbrained.

But let's discuss food instead.

The essential building blocks of the small, focused menu are familiar: tahini and yogurt with vegetables and legumes; lettuce, tomatoes, red onions and cucumbers in various combinations of salads and condiments; pickles and their turnip equivalent; and soups, grilled meats and bread.

It is at Happy Falafel, though, that one can learn the full potential of pita and the gentler sides of eggplant and chickpeas.

For instance, the pita bread for dipping is soft and fluffy. But in the fatoush salad — full of crisp lettuce and dice of cucumbers, tomatoes and red onions with a subtle citrusy dressing — the bread is chopped and morphs into Lexington's finest and richest croutons. Add a shake of salt to the plate, and fatoush doesn't get any better than this.

You will be given a handful of those croutons to go with the miraculous yellow lentil soup, hot and steaming with a silky texture and earthy flavor.

In marvelous pockets, the bread changes again and gets a toasty crust, like panini. Each pocket is smeared with a little hummus, then stuffed full of pickles and salad and shaved beef or chicken shawarma, ground beef grilled on skewers, or crunchy falafel, my personal favorite.

The pockets include one side dish, whereas platters, starring the same fillings, include wonderful vermicelli rice — such a nice riff on ordinary pilaf — with two sides.

I recommend the platters — they are only a few dollars more and you have extra entree choices, such as the bright-yellow chicken tawook. I also like the platters because you can sample more sides, and all except the watery, bland tabbouleh are excellent.

Happy Falafel's baba ganoush, a dish so often overloaded with oil and tahini, allows the sharp, smoky eggplant to shine through. The hummus also is nicely balanced: You can taste the tahini as a layer of flavor. Falafel, herbal and piping hot, crunchy on the outside and tender within, also is available as a side. I loved the thicker texture of the yogurt cucumbers, too.

The availability of dessert at Happy Falafel is still a wild card. As of this writing, I was told they are working on that course. If you are lucky and time it right (or you could simply call ahead), they will have homemade baklava. Fresh baklava is such a treat.

Slow down when you get to Eastern Avenue; otherwise you will miss Happy Falafel. That would be a real shame.

Wendy Miller is a Lexington-based food and spirits writer and critic.

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