There's a neon sign on the exterior of a Shell gas station near the intersection of Cactus Road and 67th Avenue in Peoria.
It says falafel.
Casa de Falafel is literally inside the gas station. Not next to, not adjacent to, but inside. Beside the counter over which the menu flashes on an electronic screen, there are only a few booths, flanked by the gas station's coffee bar, overlooking the pumps.
If you check the menu online, you'll find a mishmash of Chipotle-style Mexican bowls alongside Middle Eastern staples like falafel and hummus, but, once you enter the Shell and take a right just before the register, you'll find no Mexican food listed on the in-house menu. This is a good thing, as the owners' native specialties are where the focus should remain.
The Shakir family is Iraqi. Ali Shakir and Madda, his wife of 25 years, opened the shop just over a year ago. The couple had been separated for years, as Madda and their four children came to the United States eight years ago, and Ali was only able to follow them in 2015.
Their namesake falafels are a reflection of their homeland's most popular street snack. Unlike most falafels found around Phoenix, the ones at Casa de Falafel are shaped like small, sesame-coated doughnuts, rich with the traditional Iraqi combination of fava beans and chickpeas, yet airy and light under their crisp-fried crusts.
Other common street foods are made fresh in classic Arabian style. Chicken and beef shawarma sandwiches are wrapped in a thin bread called saj, and then grilled. Garlic sauce is luscious and tangy; green hot sauce is tart and herbaceous; and the hummus is nutty and thick as peanut butter, with loads of tahini.
The food on offer at Casa de Falafel is far less Americanized than what you will find at many Middle Eastern joints, with casual Arabian fast foods offered in much the same fashion they would be in Iraq, Syria, or Lebanon.
The sleeper hit of the menu, which the Shakirs hand out to customers waiting for their freshly fried falafel sandwiches and plates, is the lentil soup. The thick, chunky yellow soup is cumin-heavy and flecked with black pepper and orange bits of carrot. The hearty, savory flavor of the humble soup is attention-grabbing. The small bowls held by waiting patrons quickly empty.
As she added pickled onion to a falafel sandwich, I asked Madda why they decided to open their restaurant in a gas station. "We have to start somewhere," she said, smiling shyly. "Our oldest son, Fahad, works at this gas station, and when this space became empty, he told us and we took the opportunity to start our business here."
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She hopes that one day they will be able to open a standalone shop.
I asked them why they chose the name "Casa de Falafel." When I had first seen the sign, I wondered if it was some kind of hipster fusion concept. Ali wiped his hands on his apron, leaving his post at the fryer to walk over to us.
"The name?" he said, laughing as though it was the most obvious thing in the world. "Falafel House was taken already. We are here in Arizona, near Mexico, and 'casa' means house. So, why not?"