Foxy Falafel forks over fantastic food
The first time I ever saw chickpeas in their natural state — fresh, green, and shelled — I had a lot of questions, the first of which was, "Why is there a metric ton of edamame at this Indian market?" But after a tactile experience, some quick research on the many uses of chickpeas, and a taste of one of these raw and nutty little legumes in a spicy, yogurt-dressed salad, my next question was, "Why on earth have I been only eating these out of a can?" It's sad but true: Prior to that day, I really believed these beans were born beige and that their only purpose in life was as eventual hummus. But luckily for the rest of the restaurant-going public, there are other food-minded people out there — like Erica Strait, owner of Foxy Falafel, a new Middle Eastern restaurant in St. Paul — who are far more intuitive and more inventive than me when it comes to raw vegetable material. When Strait sees a chickpea, she sees much more than a funny little multiuse bean: She sees the backbone of her ever-expanding food empire.
Strait has had a very busy year indeed. When she started Foxy Falafel in 2010, Strait worked the farmers'-market circuit, delivering homemade pita chips, hummus, kombucha, and crispy falafels by bike. She was a wildly popular vendor at the Kingfield market, so it only made sense for Strait to expand to a food truck, which she bought and built out this spring. Now joining the elite few who have made the jump from meals-on-wheels to brick-and-mortar restaurant, Strait has moved into the former Caribe Bistro space on Raymond Avenue in St. Paul, just down the block from iconic breakfast spot Keys Cafe.
Her approach and some of her production methods (i.e., making fruit smoothies in a blender powered by pedaling a stationary bike) may be unique, but she isn't exactly reinventing the wheel food-wise, given how long chickpeas have been a diet staple of so many world populations. Remember a few years ago when salty, savory, spice-roasted chickpeas made their way into the bar-snack canon? Yeah, the ancient Romans were doing that in approximately 104 B.C. In fact, Romans held the chickpea in such high esteem that there are accounts of the philosopher Cicero proudly pointing out that the root of his name, cicer, was the Latin word for chickpea. (You can store that little piece of chickpea knowledge for your next round of pub trivia.) Chickpeas have been made into flour, fritters (yum), and flatbread, but one of the chickpea's most ingenious uses is as the base of a flavorful, fluffy, fried ball: falafel, the centerpiece of this new South St. Anthony Park restaurant.
As with the farmers' market stands and food truck, Foxy Falafel's restaurant menu is very friendly to vegetarians, vegans, and the gluten/dairy intolerant, but meat-eaters will find something to love here too. Using proteins and produce from local organic farms such as Shepherd's Song, Bossy Acres, Kadejan, and Tiny Planet, Strait puts a delicious, sustainable twist on Middle Eastern fare. The ordering process is fairly straightforward but offers several make-it-your-own possibilities. First, choose your type of falafel: Foxy (traditional), curry (Indian spices mixed in), or beet (seemed to come through more in color than in flavor). The tasty fried spheres are fluffy on the inside, never doughy, salted just enough, and vaguely reminiscent of a very crunchy, very posh tater tot. Next, choose your delivery method: sandwich, salad, or platter, which is basically all the components of the sandwich (seasoned cabbage, hummus, cucumbers, and tomatoes) but served mezze-style with corn or spiced pita chips instead of stuffed into a whole-wheat pita. If you can't decide on just one kind of falafel (it's worth noting that every employee we spoke to said their favorite was the curry falafel), there's the aptly named Stoplight Falafel, which is a colorful sampler of all three. Meat selections are subject to change, but on our visits we tried the mildly spiced turkey shawarma, which had a shredded-then-compressed texture; tender chicken gyro, which was more like chunks of chicken than the "ground" description would lead you to expect; and the best of the lot, the lamb burger. Normally the lamb comes in the form of merguez-style meatballs, but the flattened patty worked much better in the sandwich, allowing for better distribution in each bite. The spices were strong, the meat was cooked perfectly, and it had just enough fat to make it feel luxurious. It's the most expensive item on the menu at $9.50, but well worth trying.
As the final step, select a sauce (or two) to finish off your creation. Will it be the mint yogurt sauce? Maybe. But if you're looking for the garlicky punch you usually get from a traditional tzatziki sauce, you won't find it here. The overall tangy quality and the freshness of the mint is a nice addition, but it's very...yogurty. A little dull. Perhaps the harissa is better suited to your desire for all things spicy? Well, it delivers some of that, but it tends more toward the warm — not burning hot — end of the Scoville scale. What we liked best was the green tahini, which had very little sesame flavor but lots of bright herb action and a loose, pesto-like texture. The beet falafel is the only item that comes with its own creamy goat cheese dressing with a little preserved lemon, which is excellent. Ask nicely and they might give it to you, or just cough up the 50 cents it costs for extra sauce.
Foxy has a couple of sides to help bulk up your vegetable intake and turn your mains into more of a meal, since portions, while totally reasonable, are somewhat moderate. The side of marinated beets came brightly dressed with a heavy dose of coriander and were a welcome alternative to chips or other familiar carbs. We also marveled over the springy-light quinoa salad, which changes with the seasons. This one featured sprigs of mint, a little feta cheese, and sweet slices of melon. What you should really spring for is the pickle plate, which is great to snack on while you wait for your food, but even better to put on top of your sandwich or salad. Thin slices of pink pickled onion, snappy pickled green beans, relishy rounds of zucchini, and even regular ol' kosher dills added a bit of acid and a lot of interest to our food. They also made us long for a fancy bloody Mary, which might not be far off in Foxy's future. Strait hinted that once farmers'-market season ends in October, the brick-and-mortar store will look into adding Sunday brunch. Beet hash? Savory chickpea pancakes? Eggs Benedict with a pita base and that delightful goat cheese sauce? These are just free ideas, people.
Though historically, this particular location has proved to be a hurdle for some of the other restaurants that came before it (Caribe, Chet's), Strait's fast-casual, quick-turnover model and to-go fare already seem like they're much better suited for the space. Though we were always able to get a table, the line at the counter never seemed to slow to a halt, and that's a promising thing for a new business. Walking away with Saran-wrapped, gluten-free molasses-ginger and lemon-thyme cookies in hand, I felt full, virtuous, and very happy to know that we have this local business owner who saw so much potential in the humble chickpea, and a local community that seems to see so much potential in her business.
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