It is rare that I encounter restaurant or prepared food with personality. I find home cooking to be infinitely interesting because I am privy to the back story of my meals; I know that tomato was the only one in the pile without a bruise, I know that the lemony flavor is there to correct an oversalting. I don't like to cook anything twice, and delight in obscure ingredients and oddly paired flavors. I love eating in restaurants, but character, artistry and risk are almost always sacrificed for mass appeal.
So naturally, my curiosity was piqued when I passed a smoking food cart on 20th and Market, the rim of which was lined with hundreds of heads of garlic, decorated with flowers and hanging baskets. That, combined with an exceptionally long line and jazz music blaring from the inside, told me that this cart had quirk. I didn't need to take one step closer to realize that this is the famous falafel cart.
A friend of mine loved this falafel so much, she could not justify spending her out-to-eat food budget on anything else. Christo's on 20th and Market has no menu, no beverages [you don't need beverages with quality, he boasts to the woman in front of me who requests a diet coke], and you can't order more than one sandwich or platter, because each one takes at least 10 minutes to make. Multiple orders would create a line that rivals I-76 on a Friday. Each sandwich costs an outrageous $10, and mine was topped with a flesh-colored pasta salad, grapes and bananas, among other things. It's weirder than the Tiberino Museum and Rodeo Kareoke combined.
My happenstance was opportune, as this clip from VendorTV [a cute show about street food that is not as good as Al Jezerra's series.] premiered last month featuring Cristo's Falafel.
So, does Cristo's taste live up to its reputation? Well, yes and no. Cristo's Cart gets points for ingenuity, and the sandwiches are great, if not exceptionally greasy. My major complaint is that these sandwiches have very little to do with falafel. While I'm unclear about the ethnic origins of Gus, the owner, I'm pretty sure he must be one of the few lunch cart owners in Philadelphia who is not from somewhere in the Arabic-speaking world.
Falafel topped with different types of salads is distinctively Israeli-style, and is so popular that it is known as Israeli's national snack. In a story that is classically Israeli, it is said that the salad toppings started as fierce competition between falafel shop owners in Tel Aviv, with each shop adding offering a new topping to their customers, until a veritable salad bar of condiments were made available to top your already flavorful falafel patty, presumably to outsell their Arab competitors in East Jeruselem.
We Lebanese are miffed. And rightly so! Israeli's can't just eat falafel, they have to "one-up" the recipe and sell it at a higher price. Cultural co-optation is not simply about one culture adopting the practice of another--it is about a dominant culture using another to make a buck. To some extent, food and culture are to be shared by all, but it is impossible to ignore the fact that Israeli co-optation of Arab cuisine is intimately intertwined with the inhumanity of the occupation.
Cristo's certainly falls prey to the bastardization of the falafel sandwich, but that doesn't mean it's not delicious. And it's not Mr. Cristo's fault that Palestinians are subjugated by a colonial regime. Mr. Cristo has figured out that in a world or mass production and hegemony, people are willing to wait a little longer, and pay a little extra for food that is fun and idiosyncratic. As far as I'm concerned, as long as I can suspend any pretense that I am eating a proper Beiruti falafel, I will certainly be a returning customer.