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What the falafel?

A couple of years ago, a father-son team brought a distinctive café and market to Myrtle Beach. Habibi's Café and Market, located at 3310 Waccamaw Blvd., a few doors down from Ron Jon's, is the quintessential international food stop.

The modest space has a back wall lined with large containers of spices that fill the air with aromas of a street food fair in the Middle East. The warm greeting from Mazin Safa, one of the owners, put this foodie into action. Safa says they bring the spices from New York instead of from a local importer because they find the shipments to be much fresher from the larger import companies. The extra shipping expense is well worth it if you consider the aromas swirling about the room. Safa will weigh and bag any amount of spice that you need or he may blend any combination that you prefer as well. It's a local spice market.

As you peruse the couple of aisles that are chocked full of labels in other languages, you really get a good sense of a completely different culture. From Kim Chi to grape leaves to European soda, Habibi's doesn't stray from keeping the products international. Items that foodies have a hard time finding or European transplants may not be able to buy at the local grocery are abundant at Habibi's.

While the market is a great reason to visit, Habibi's also has a café. This is where you get to see the products from the shelves put into action. In classic tradition of most Middle Eastern delis, the real star of the show for Habibi's is its falafel.

What the heck is falafel?

Falafel is made of chickpeas, also called fava beans, and herbs that are formed into a ball and deep fried. Most often, falafel is served in a pita with lettuce, tomato and tahini, a roasted paste made traditionally of toasted sesame seeds. You will see falafel as a salad topping, served with hot sauce, as a side dish or as the main course.

It has been used as a meat substitute since its inception in ancient Egypt. Falafel is said to have been integral in replacing the nutritional elements of meat during Lent. Later, Israelis put falafel into a pita with salad and changed the meat substitute into its own distinct dish.

Regardless of who receives credit, this little ball of goodness is reminiscent of a dense hushpuppy with a little more flavor. It also packs more of a nutritional punch. Falafel is high in protein, complex carbohydrates and fiber. It is also low in fat, cholesterol and salt. Of course, frying is a big factor for the health conscious eater, but it can also be baked if you don't mind a texture change. I say just call it a guilty pleasure and fry 'em.

Many people, present company included, have tried vegetarian diets only to wind up feeling hungry and unsatisfied despite the health benefits. Falafel is an incredibly hearty vegetarian dish. It can easily replace hamburgers and meatballs without leaving you wanting more. The density and flavor make it a very filling meal in and of itself.

There are a few places on the Grand Strand that offer falafel, however, I find that Habibi's is the real deal. Habibi's avoids Americanizing its café and market to put forth traditional ethnic cuisine. I ordered a dozen on my most recent visit for a dinner party and turned a lot of people onto falafel with Habibi's recipe.

So you want to know just how big falafel actually is? Amsterdam Falafel Shop out of Washington, D.C., is now franchising. A fast, casual restaurant based around the ancient meat substitute is creating such a stir that it is now offering its success to franchisees.

Meanwhile, Habibi's is no one-trick pony. In addition to falafel, the cafe offers other outstanding Middle Eastern cuisine. Gyros (pronounced he-ro), which consists of roasted meat, tomato, lettuce and tzatziki sauce, are also a staple on the menu. Tzatziki is a sauce of yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, olive oil and, often, dill. It is a great complement to the smoky roasted meat. If that doesn't do it for you, kabobs of lamb, beef and chicken are grilled over charcoal if you have a carnivorous habit. Of course there's humus, taboule and baba ganoush. Baba Ganoush is probably the biggest flavor punch with eggplant and numerous spices for dunking your pita bread.

While I know we all love our local eateries, places like Habibi's Café and Market are not to be missed. They are bringing a new and needed element to our local food culture. Stop by and see Safa for some amazing falafel.

Got flair?

The Myrtle Beach TGI Friday's held its first round of bartending contests on Sept. 14. Contestants showcased their customer service skills, savvy in mixology and, of course, their prowess flipping bottles and showmanship. It may sound like a simple reason to drink on a Tuesday until you understand that TGI Friday's puts up a $25,000 cash prize and unlimited job opportunities for the national winner. This is serious bartending business.

Stay tuned for the next installment of contests in our area as the next step will be the regional competition later this year.

Cheers!

Kevin Hoover, a local foodie, is engaged in the endless pursuit of the perfect cocktail and dining experience. Check out his blog at lushlifeonline.com.

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