This weekend in Bushwick, you can jam on some Middle Eastern fare and peep in on the progress over at House of Yes during Queen of Falafel’s grand opening brunch party. As the acrobatic DIY performance collective continues to put seemingly endless layers of crazy on their new Jefferson Street home before the space can officially raise the curtains, cousins Justin Ahiyon and Ilan Telmont (both partners at HoY along with co-founders Anya Sapozhnikova and Kae Burke) have gone ahead and opened up their falafel joint inside a small corner of the building.
Queen of Falafel is tiny, but there’s a take-out window, and– if you’re lucky– room at the counter space with a handful of seats. “At first we planned to open a juice bar, but we ended up doing falafel, which is funny because it has nothing to do with House of Yes,” Justin laughed. Perhaps not, but the wee restaurant has definitely been possessed by the spirt of its wacky patron saint. “The girls are out here dancing around today, Anya was here licking everyone– it’s like a big show.”
Last time we checked in on House of Yes, they were cleaning up after a Bushwick Open Studios party. Save for a few private events (including a Batman and villain-themed bachelor party where Anya and her cohorts staged a kidnapping of the groom, subsequently bestowing on him an “octopus massage”) they’ve focused mainly on finishing the major renovations before their first official event, a holiday show in December. Apparently it takes a ton of work to turn an industrial laundromat into a whimsical, sparkling show space. When I met up with Anya yesterday she was marveling at the new installation hanging over the bar, a massive metal sculpture with winding curves and the enormous likeness of a hula hoop. Apparently this baby lights up.
Meanwhile, Queen of Falafel (connected to the rest of House of Yes through the backstage dressing room and a window that peeks out from a corner where the stage meets the ground) has been frying up falafel for close to two weeks now. It’s brand new, but the place manages to look like it’s been there forever.
Apparently the neighborhood agrees. “We already have regulars,” Justin beamed. “I have high hopes for this little shack.”
Anya introduced Justin as “chef,” but he’s actually somewhat reluctant to assume the label. “I’m not a chef,” he clarified. “I’m more of a performer.” How, then, is the falafel so superbly crisped? The labneh a heavenly mix of creamy rich and yogurty sour? “Grandma’s recipes,” Justin revealed.
Born and raised in Queens, Justin’s family immigrated here from Morocco and actually, his aunt Rivka Orlin is the proprietor of Cafe Mogador. The East Village institution (they opened up a popular Williamsburg outpost a couple years back) has been serving Moroccan food since, well…
“Before I was born,” Justin confirmed.
Like Mogador, Queen of Falafel offers classic Middle Eastern fare, the kind of stuff Americans are familiar with (falafel is $7 for a sandwich, and $10 for a plate with hummus, tahini, Arabic salad, roasted eggplant and fresh labneh). But they’re also serving lesser-known dishes like shakshuka ($7) and sabich ($6) alongside daily specials (yesterday it was lentil soup). Unlike his aunt’s place, though, the idea here is a quick lunch bite, or late-night snack for takeout for between $6 and $12.
“I think of it as a food truck,” Justin explained. While he has plenty of restaurant experience under his belt, his aunt lent a hand in getting the corner falafel shop going. “It’s been awesome to see her in her element, building a kitchen from scratch.” The help came in exchange for a pledge to donate 10 percent of the restaurant’s proceeds to a Kathmandu-based charity, House with Heart.
But the homey decor and solid vibes are all Justin. The first thing you’ll notice about Queen of Falafel is the smell of fried chickpeas and next, how tiny the space is, but they’ve managed to keep the place comfortable, bright, and warm. Even when four people at once are tugging on Justin’s arms for his attention, he manages to keep a sincere smile. “I love being right there with the customers,” he said. “I’ve always been more of a front-of-house guy.”
Using leftover tiles from the ongoing construction and what look like family heirlooms, Justin has given the place a look all its own. It almost feels like you’re in a little shack perched on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean. If it wasn’t against health code or whatever, I’d totally take off my shoes. The walls are decorated with dried flowers, old photos, metal teapots, and sea shells. It feels like grandma’s kitchen– not mothball grandma, more like super chill grandma from the old country who has witchy cures for your ailments and secret recipes. The kitchen area is also bitty, but customers waiting on their food can the staff fry falafel and stuff ingredients inside pita bread. There’s a self-serve dispenser of lemon-and-mint water tucked into the corner and fresh ingredients are sorted into piles under a glass counter where you place your order, reminders that this is real food.
Though the tiny restaurant has just a few tall white bar chairs, there’s a hidden hallway with several more in the back. “We’re experimenting with using the dressing room as a dining room during the day,” Anya said, leading me to a long, narrow room behind a blue door. Somehow the space doesn’t look interim at all– the walls are painted with purple and magenta flowers and lined with mirrors along a long counter, just big enough to put food trays on and eat comfortably.
And because this is House of Yes, they’ve got all kinds of insanity planned for the grand opening, happening this weekend (Saturday, Oct. 23 11:30 am to 3 pm, performances will start at noon and one food item gets you into the show)– including the usual aerial acrobats, dancing, and live music from a Middle Eastern ensemble and a band featuring the sitar. But the HoY crew has also planned some special Queen of Falafel-themed performances.
“Justin said his dream was to have falafel jugglers,” Anya explained. So she recruited a friend of hers, a trick bartender and champion pizza dough twirler (“It’s totally a scene,” Anya explained of the pizza dough tossers) for the job. And sticking to House of Yes protocol, performers will be decked out in fanciful costumes. “Did you see that welder guy in there– the one who looks like a Viking?” Anya asked. “Well, we’re dressing him up like a showgirl.” And bless these freaks, they’re bringing out something called “The Tongues” (see below). “Basically, it’s high-end circus mixed with camp,” Anya explained.
Before I left yesterday, I had one question left to ask Justin: where did he stand in the Arabic versus Israeli dispute over the origins of falafel? Are there huge differences between the kind of falafel Israelis make and what other Middle-Easterners are frying up? I thought this was particularly important in light of his cousin’s Israeli origins and Justin’s own North African heritage. Whose claim to this divine creation was legitimate?
“There are lots of little tweaks to what you put inside falafel which makes it different colors– some is red, ours is green– but the real differences lie in how big it is and how long you fry it,” he said. “From what I gather, [the Israelis] they’re all sneaking away to Arab restaurants to eat, and vise versa, and whatever shit they’re talking is totally not true.”
This whole thing reminded me of a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode. “Oh yeah, ‘Palestinian Chicken,'” Justin agreed. In the episode, Larry David and Jeff (in case you haven’t picked up on it, they’re both Jews) sneak off from their families to go to a Palestinian chicken restaurant– they figure the most delicious chicken they’ve ever tasted is worth potentially pissing off their rabidly pro-Israel families and friends who later join a protest against the opening of another Palestinian chicken location next to a Jewish deli. We’re left with a glimpse of Larry walking between the protest crowd and the counter-protestors, each yelling at him to join their cause.
We don’t see exactly what happens in the very end, but it’s hard to imagine Larry choosing anything other than the Palestinian side, not only because of the divine food, but because he’s sleeping with Shara, a beautiful Palestinian woman. It’s good to see that House of Yes has chosen, like Larry David probably did, the path of pleasure. Hell, I’ll take a falafel shack over another juice bar any day of the week. Queen of Falafel, fighting the oppressors of solid food, one fried chickpea ball at a time.
Click on the thumbnails below for the full menu.
Queen of Falafel is located at 2 Wyckoff Avenue at Jefferson Street, 646-838-4937. Grand opening brunch party happening Saturday Oct. 24th 11:30 am – 3 pm.