Welcome to "Schaefer," in which Eric Schaefer -- a local guy with a big (but discerning) appetite and a sense of humor to match -- takes on the Phoenix food scene.
My favorite use of the word "falafel" comes from an unlikely source. In 2004, in the heat of the Presidential election, conservative neanderthal Bill O'Reilly was embroiled in a scandal in which one of his producers was claiming sexual harassment. Apparently, O'Reilly had a thing for phone sex, and liked fantasizing about a scenario in which the object of his affection used a "falafel" on herself while in the shower. What he meant to say was "loofah," but he said "falafel."
Nine years later, I still giggle inside every time I see my wife's "falafel" hanging in the shower.
Now that you've recovered from the soul-shattering effects of seeing me use the words "Bill O'Reilly" and "phone sex" in the same sentence, I'll tip you off to my favorite falafel joint in town.
It's called Paprika and it has been flying mostly under the radar for the better part of a year. It's kosher, and has a loyal following of observant Jews but the food is downright extraordinary and it's time that the word got out to the unchosen masses. As a lover of loofah -- I mean falafel -- I'm grateful for a friend of mine that told me about Paprika, but I'm almost hesitant to publicize it for fear that I'll no longer be able to get a table. I'm hooked.
Paprika is a tiny storefront nestled in the mish-mosh of shops on the northwest corner of Shea and Scottsdale Road. Inside, you'll find a cheery space with some of the friendliest employees I've ever found. They are genuinely excited that you're there, and will happily guide you through the small menu.
On a recent visit I made over the summer, two middle-school aged girls were eating there while their moms were shopping nearby, Instead of being annoyed that they were lingering, the proprietor asked them if he could get them anything and then said, "Feel free to stay as long as you like. We're happy you're here."
Although Paprika features most of the Israeli/Arabic/Mediterranean basics - kabobs, schnitzel, falafel and shawarma - what you really need to order is the shawafel, a clever word that describes a pita generously filled with both falafel and shawarma.
For the un-initiated, shawarma (it has many variations) in this instance is heavily seasoned strips of chicken thigh, cut from a spit. The fat from the chicken thighs marinates the meat as it is rendered out, resulting in meat that is juicy, dense with flavor, and tender.
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Mixed with the crunchy falafel balls, shawafel strikes just the right textural balance. At just over $11 (including hand-cut French fries), it's not a cheap sandwich but nothing classified as "kosher" ever is. But even more satisfying than the shawafel is the skhug, a hot sauce that is as common in Israeli cuisine as Sriracha is on America tables. (Recently, at a Japanese restaurant, the server said, "There's Sriracha over there for the white people.") Skhug (or zhug in Yemeni Arabic, according to Wikipedia), is a fiery combination of hot peppers, coriander, garlic and spices. What's interesting about skhug is that it doesn't just deliver the heat, but it packs a potent punch of both heat and flavor. You'll need to ask for it, but you'll be glad you did. I was smothering it on everything I ate.
So there you have it: Bill O'Reilly, Orthodox Jews, shawarma, phone sex -- and one of my favorite new restaurants.
My work here is done.