Even as a New Yorker with a deep hatred for waiting, I have never minded the lines snaking out from beneath Mamoun’s Falafel’s trademark brown awning. Not only does the Chater family have over 40 years of experience in quality, fast-paced service, but the fragrant scent of marinated meat and the smoky, succulent flavor of a shawarma sandwich always rewarded any visitor that steps into this friendly hole-in-the-wall.
The West Village branch of Mamoun’s Falafel has thrown plenty of lifelines for my hunger and wallet throughout high school. Thus, in the nostalgic pursuit of Middle Eastern cuisine, attending Mamoun’s Falafel’s opening night here at Princeton was a no-brainer.
“My father, Mamoun, always had an interest in Princeton,” proclaims Hussam Chater, who has moved down to Princeton manage the restaurant. We always knew about the market, and we thought it was a great market for our brand.”
The ambiance, at first, was foreign; instead of cramped intimacy, I was greeted by a convivial tavern, lights strategically illuminating the dining tables and vibrant colors adorning the sandwich and plates options. Compared to their simpler, homier, walk-in New York locations, the Chaters have adopted a comfortingly unadorned and roomier space for the Princeton location. This change in atmosphere, however, does not compromise the homemade quality of each item or the gentle smell of marinated meat wafting around the cashier.
“Because this location’s bigger than our other locations, what’s really enjoyable is to see the restaurant when it fills up—to see people eating and sitting down and relaxing,” Chater said. “People come in and bring a really uplifting vibe that we love to see.”
The scent in the air is but a preview for what is to come. The meat in the sandwiches ($6.75) and larger platters ($12.00) begs the attention with every bite. The chicken of the chicken kebob sandwich is justly spiced, enticing customers to have another bite of its chewy, grilled exterior. Meanwhile, packed with jerky-like lamb strips of a smoky texture, the shawarma sandwich punches your taste-buds with an amplified, sharp taste of lamb that is often downplayed in high-end restaurants. However, the meat wasn’t always able to stand out, as the arrangement of the sandwiches sometimes detracted from the quality—the ratio of meat to flaky lettuce and juicy tomatoes varied, with the vegetables comparably mundane.
This unbalanced arrangement especially stood out with the vegetarian options ($4.50 for sandwiches, $7 for plates). A tenderly smoked eggplant dip with parsley, garlic, and tahineh with a creamy consistency, the baba ghanoush was weak and unnoticeable compared to the lettuce, tomatoes, and onions dominating the pita pocket. Around the meat sandwich, the chewy pita felt lightly fluffy, yet in the baba ghanoush, the pita was comparably harder, distracting me from the filling inside.
Once you get to the end of each sandwich, however, you will find a messy explosion of a tangy, sweet tahineh sauce and savory flavor—a lasting impression reminding customers of Mamoun’s status as a consistently Top 100 food joint in NYC.
One cannot go to Mamoun’s Falafel without trying its namesake. The titular appetizer includes four falafel balls ($3.00) lightly dressed in white sauce. Even the tiniest bite offers huge crunch and nicely contrasting chickpea filling that is smooth and leaves a tingling on your palate well after your last bite of it. The tabbouleh ($3.50), another common Middle Eastern appetizer, is another standout in the menu. The refreshing crunch of the parsley and mint flakes and tomato cubes, doused gently with lemon juice and olive oil, is accompanied by the sharp sourness of occasional pickled cabbages and olives. While the price of Mamoun’s Falafel, albeit slightly more expensive than its New York iterations, is certainly worth it, the 12 oz. bowl of tabbouleh packs a lot of salad for $3.50.
My personal recommendation for a drink to accompany your meal is the mint lemonade ($2.25, like the other specialty drinks), which packs a powerful flavor. The drink is very sweet, almost to the point of excess, yet the mint flavor features prominently. For a sweet end to your meal, I recommend the namoura, a fluffy balance between thin layers of fillo dough crust, lightly sweetened with honey and velvety buttermilk-like custard.
Despite its larger space, the newest branch of Mamoun’s Falafel keeps the same menu and the same mission as the family’s older homes: “We have a very simple philosophy, and that’s to work hard, to buy quality food, and keep our customers happy,” Chater said.
Mamoun’s is a family business, and its shortcomings remind us of just that—that no matter how excellent and renowned they are, Mamoun’s always serves a sometimes flawed, but genuinely homemade meal.
Location: 20 Witherspoon St., Princeton, NJ
Hours of Operation: Monday: 11:00 am – 2:00 am; Tuesday: 11:00 am – 2:00 am; Wednesday: 11:00 am – 2:00 am; Thursday: 11:00 am – 3:00 am; Friday: 11:00 am – 4:00 am; Saturday: 11:00 am – 4:00 am; Sunday11:00 am – 1:00 am.