Guide

11 Falafel Places to Try in the SF Bay Area

By Trevor Felch  |  March 8, 2017
Credit: Trevor Felch

Ranging from crispy, dense and dark to soft, fluffy and bright green, the falafel around the Bay Area is plentiful and wide-ranging. It's thanks in part to a wave of new and riveting Middle Eastern restaurants and fast-casual cafes that serve up great fried chickpea (and sometimes fava beans) with vibrant mezes and tempting meat platters. That's in addition to the multi-decades old legendary spots that still have the final word on local falafel. All we can say is we're ready for lunchtime so we can go back to these 11 standouts.

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  • Credit: Sajj Street Eats/Facebook

    Sajj
    This growing Middle Eastern fast-casual concept in South Bay (with a recently unveiled weekday lunchtime-only outpost in SoMa) is a local mini-chain that doesn’t feel formulaic or cookie cutter. The fresh ingredients matter, the line moves efficiently and, wow, those hot, crispy falafel balls are among the most rewarding in the Bay. Falafel are highly customizable in terms of toppings, sauces and serving format. But when at Sajj you should learn about the namesake griddle, which is used to heat the flatbread — so try the wrap.

    636 2nd St.; 415-658-7577

  • Credit: Truly Mediterranean/Facebook

    Truly Mediterranean 
    Later this year, this venerable Mission favorite for falafel and shawarma to go (or to stay in a narrow space with five stools) will be celebrating a quarter century in business. They have a few stories to tell about the changes they've seen around this particular area of the city. One thing has certainly not changed: piping hot, substantial-sized falafel balls with slick crusts and vibrant green centers. If you’re up for heat, get the spicy falafel option (and ask for plenty of tahini and cucumber salad to tame it down if needed).

    3109 16th St.; 415-252-7482 

  • Credit: Trevor Felch

    Mediterranean Wraps
    Palo Alto's California Avenue lunch hour gets jammed like a rush hour on 101 North. The draw here is the shawarma plates, chicken wraps and, most importantly, some of the hands-down best Bay Area falafel. They are crispier and chewier than average, and as dense as it gets without being overwrought. The shamrock green core is stained with parsley and the curious, fragrant addition of green onions. Definitely pair a falafel and spreads platter with a Turkish cappuccino from next door's Zombie Runner and enjoy it all at a sidewalk table for prime people-watching.

    433 California Ave., Palo Alto; 650-321-8189

  • Credit: Liba Falafel/Facebook

    Liba Falafel
    One of the Bay Area’s most successful food trucks retired after opening this successful brick-and-mortar in Uptown Oakland: Liba Falafel opens solely for lunch, offering falafel with a bountiful array of garnishes, relishes and other toppings. That unfairly gets more attention than the chickpea balls themselves, stars in their own right with an ideal chewy exterior and plush interior. The beet hummus and smoked baba ghanoush are our favorite sauces to add (if you must). Pro tip: Opt for a salad unless you want an instant mess. 

    380 17th St., Oakland; 415-806-5422

  • Credit: Trevor Felch

    Heritage Eats 
    In one of the busiest mini-malls you’ll ever see (with both a Trader Joe’s and a Whole Foods), Ben Koenig’s globe-spanning, fast-casual spot serves chicken tikka masala wraps, Thai bao — and falafel pitas. Koenig backpacked around Asia and the Middle East after leaving a Goldman Sachs financial job and ended up creating this family-friendly concept. So, yes the normal falafel option comes on homemade pita with hummus and harissa but it's also topped with pico de gallo salsa. Or, go crazy and have the somewhat flat-shaped falafel balls customized on Dutch Crunch bread with pineapple habanero sauce, carrot and daikon radish, because why not? When you’re tired of the typical Cabernet Sauvignon lunch-pairing fare, this light and slightly crumbly falafel with global flavors is the perfect remedy.

    3824 Bel Aire Plaza, Napa; 707-226-3287

  • Credit: Cameron Neilson

    Sababa
    The FiDi lunch rush lines are still out the door for these sandwiches on hot pita as puffy as the Seinfeld shirt; they're filled with a host of toppings and either falafel, sabik (fried eggplant and a soft egg), chicken or beef kebabs. You want that first option of deftly spiced, slickly fried chickpea balls which are certainly smaller than your normal falafel ball but equally notable. They are almost falafel coins. Regardless of the shape, they’re right on the mark just like the pita and the roasted cauliflower, an essential side order. Note: Sababa is now open for dinner.

    329 Kearny St.; 415-800-6853

  • Credit: The Flying Falafel/Facebook

    The Flying Falafel 
    Most Mid-Market blocks are rapidly gentrifying but the stretch between 6th and 7th hasn’t seen much change since a baked fries stand became this falafel concept two years ago. The tiny, always cheery spot brings office workers and tourists alike to the block, and it's some of the city’s premier (and fluffy) falafel at a bargain price. There's an interesting backstory too; its founder started Flying Falafel while a student at UC Berkeley. Be sure to order a vegan banana “milkshake” on the side. South Bay diners can enjoy the falafel at its second outpost in San Jose.

    1051 Market St.; 415-964-1003

  • Credit: Trevor Felch

    Old Jerusalem 
    Forget about the traditional falafel balls. These are falafel fingers: Six to an order and long with a crispy exterior, they're particularly useful for dipping in the superb hummus and other dips on the menu from this leisurely Middle Eastern classic in the outer reaches of the Mission. The center of the fingers has less of a green herb slant to them and leans more on cumin and other rustic notes. Even better than the fingers: Old Jerusalem's giant stuffed falafel ball, about the size of three normal falafel balls and served à la carte. They come fresh from the fryer too hot to eat and bursting with pine nuts, sumac and diced fried onion.  

    2976 Mission St.; 415-642-5958

  • Credit: Ba-Bite/Facebook

    Ba Bite
    Tucked in the quiet Piedmont neighborhood of Oakland, this outstanding Middle Eastern counter-service cafe (from a longtime catering-focused chef duo) doesn’t get the visibility it would in more high-profile surrounds. But the quiet neighborhood favorite offers destination-worthy falafel and meze salads. The falafel manages to be perky and even plush — the opposite of other dense, crumbly falafel dipped too long in the fryer. Perhaps the addition of fava beans to the chickpea patty is the trick. Order them à la carte on one of the technicolor, lush salads and you've got the makings of a perfect lunch.

    3905 Piedmont Ave., Oakland; 510-250-9526

  • Credit: Trevor Felch

    Vive la Tarte
    SoMa’s industrial, über-chic ode to tarts and anything pastry related has a virtually unknown lunch menu because nobody gets past the croissants and insanely moist Belgian chocolate cake. One of the key items for an actual meal from the lunch selections is a generous plate of tiny falafel balls that look more like tidy, one-bite hushpuppies. If you’re one of those passionate falafel fans who prefer the springy interior consistency found at the venerable falafel stands in Paris (balls with a less pronounced outside crust), this is the version for you. The herbal notes are also more subdued here, instead playing background to the cucumber yogurt, pickled cabbage and housemade focaccia to make a DIY sandwich. Best of all, you can pair your great falafel with an equally strong cortado from Sightglass beans. #lunchvictory

    1160 Howard St.; 415-634-5444

  • Credit: Sunrise Deli/Facebook

    Sunrise Deli
    No falafel purveyor is more synonymous with falafel than this Outer Sunset legend (get the name play?) that now has multiple Bay Area locations. The falafel is textbook and consistent: moist but not cloying textures, bright flavors with a hint of spice, no grease — and just the right size for two large bites. Sunrise also helped San Francisco realize falafel wraps can only improve when filled with avocado or “super-styled” with eggplant and potatoes. These falafel are great with those elaborate compositions or simply unadorned.

    2115 Irving St.; 415-664-8210