Clash of the Falafels

sizing up middle eastern food on college hill

Phil Lai

Illustration: Phil Lai

Falafel is undeniably highbrow. Not only are the fried chickpea patties meat-free, marginally healthy and thus self-aggrandizing, but the food’s Middle Eastern origin also lets the eater pretend to be worldly and aware.  Why, yes indeed, passersby, I am eating an international food, because I care about political affairs and will probably save the world by crossing cultural boundaries.

It’s no wonder, then, that on the whole, Brown students love falafel. And aside from its political implications, falafel is just plain delicious. Wrapped in a cloak of warm pita bread, these hot, crunchy balls swim in yogurt sauce, hot peppers, lettuce, tomatoes and all other bits of deliciousness, making for a a huge foil-wrapped package that’s almost too big to fit in your mouth. It’s no wonder, then, Brown students consistently and fiercely debate the merits of the two falafel eateries on Thayer Street: East Side Pockets and Byblos.

Each restaurant has its proponents, but an informal poll of V-Dub patrons suggested that more Brunonians prefer East Side Pockets.

East Side, founded in 1997 by an immigrant family from Syria, is the older of the two, and it has a far more inspirational back-story. Nearly every member of the Boutros family has worked at East Side since the restaurant’s birth 12 years ago, overcoming language barriers and putting in nearly 19-hour days in order to find economic success in America. Byblos came to Thayer in 2005, and its Lebanese owners don’t advertise quite so cheery and heartwarming a story.

Kate Kennedy ’13 said that she likes eating at East Side not only because “they have good food.” “I feel like I’m supporting the little man more,” she says.

Alexa Ellis ’13 added that she also prefers East Side to Byblos because “I just like the people there more. I think they’re way cooler.”

Right on the main drag, and with its large glass windows open to the street, East Side Pockets is almost always busy around lunch hour. Its small size and dearth of adequate seating can make it difficult to find a table, but the food is worth any wait. The mostly Middle-Eastern staff flawlessly prepares not only made-to-order falafel but also a wide variety of ethnic meals. The chicken plate makes for a fantastic alternative to the V-dub and Ratty, since its easily identifiable meat comes pre-mixed with rice, vegetables and thin, toasted bread.

Right next to Ben and Jerry’s, Byblos offers Lebanese food and also boasts a hookah lounge and full bar above its dining area. The dark wood and well-arranged seating lend Byblos its ideal physical environment, but both its food and service were a little disheartening. On one occasion the waitstaff forgot that I’d ordered and had me wait 30 minutes for a tabbouleh salad, which takes only moments to prepare. Their falafel and conventional Middle Eastern fare is perfectly adequate, though not as jaw-achingly delicious as that served across the street at East Side. But the burgers are phenomenal. Plump, juicy and served with homemade fries, this not-so-Lebanese food is Byblos’ main culinary attraction.

Hristo Atanasov ’10.5 prefers Byblos to East Side Pockets. “East Side Pockets has better falafel. But Byblos is cool because they have the hookah section,” he explained. Indeed, Byblos claims to offer the first hookah lounge in Rhode Island, although the Byblos lounge may be too expensive for the storied stinginess of many Brown students. The wait staff asks that each party order at least one hookah for every two people; depending on the number of flavors and quality, hookah can cost upwards of $25 at Byblos. The mixed-drink prices also far exceed Brown’s $1 frat-party concoctions, never mind a homemade cocktail.

So, for those of us who look to a restaurant to give us good food or help make a fashionable political statement, East Side wins this campus debate on the Middle East. But if smoking hookah and boozing is more your thing, it’s off to Byblos you go.