It’s 3 p.m. on a Friday, and there is a line from the register all the way to the front door. Cooks on the line are plating falafel, slathering smears of hummus and slicing roasted meats off the rotating spit. All the while, Fares Zeideia is singing, “I Love Rock and Roll” along with Joan Jett, who is piping out through the speakers overhead.
Zeideia, better known as The King of Falafel, officially opened the first brick-and-mortar space at 31st Street and broadway in Astoria for his award-winning falafel and shawarma on Saturday, Jan. 30. Sharing the block with Parisi Bakery, the restaurant is located just around the corner from the space where loyal fans anxiously wait for plates of the delicious grilled meats from the truck that has been serving New York City for the past decade and a half.
“I moved to New York City from Palestine when I was about 15,” recalls Zeideia, who is now 50. “For a while I slept on the A train, feeding myself on 10-cent burgers from White Castle.” He then worked in a pizzeria, worked at a stationery store, and even drove a taxi for nearly 17 years. “I never thought I would see something like this space happen,” he says.
The restaurant is part homage to New York City, with a pastel mural of the city as seen from the East River decorating the entryway. It is also part homage to the holy city of his birth with a giant mural of the Dome of the Rock gracing the main dining area. Colorful mosaics fill the space between, as well as seating for nearly 40 customers.
What was born as simple meats served from the original 8-foot street cart has now grown into a Vendy Award-winning empire that seems poised to become a mainstay. “People come from as far away as California and Japan,” Zeideia says. And the reason is immediately apparent as soon as you try a bite of the lamb or chicken mixed with pickled turnips, basmati rice and garlic sauce.
The new restaurant space will allow the freedom to offer more salads and refrigerated dishes, as well as experiment with daily specials. The main recipes are all adjusted from Zeideia’s mother’s own recipes. “The falafel is actually vegan, though many think it has breadcrumbs to give the outside that crunch,” he explains. “It’s all about how long you soak the chickpeas, and the temperature of the fryer.”
It would appear the team has worked out any kinks long before opening the doors to the restaurant. Already, the line is out the door, just like the crowd that gathers down the street by the truck. It’s no wonder; in addition to serving award-winning food, Zeideia greets his customers with an enormous smile of recognition and gratitude.