Good to Go

Good to Go: Ali Baba Falafel in Bethesda

Seven days a week, Mohamed Elrafai parks his falafel cart and his two parakeets in Bethesda.
Seven days a week, Mohamed Elrafai parks his falafel cart and his two parakeets in Bethesda. (By James M. Thresher For The Washington Post)
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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

"Ali Baba Restaurant. How can I help you?"

Mohamed Elrafai has answered his phone that way for years, though his falafel stand is only four months old. After he used the line to fool his relatives and friends who call from Egypt, "the joke became the truth!" he says.

The Annandale resident and former antiques shop owner has positioned his cart at the front corner of the Montgomery Farm Women's Cooperative Market lot in Bethesda. Fava beans make the difference in his falafel sandwich (small, $4.95; large, $6.95); Elrafai says the vegetable patties were made this way in Egypt long before chickpeas became a main ingredient in the falafel sandwiches of Israel, Syria and Lebanon.

He flavors the fava bean mixture with fresh parsley and fries it; he then wraps tender, warm flatbread around the falafel and adds red cabbage, banana peppers, pickled vegetables, lettuce, tomato, tahini and sesame seeds. It's a sandwich with lots of crunch.

Elrafai, 52, works at the stand with Nordin Grabsi, his Algerian business partner, seven days a week. Between 11:30 and 2:30 p.m. on weekdays, he says, "we don't even talk to each other . . . things are flying inside." (Weekend business is steady with customers from the coop and outdoor crafts market.) They gave great consideration to each menu item: "We tested 10 kinds of french fries before I find this kind and said, 'That's the one.' "

The resulting seasoned fries ($2.50) are crisp on the outside and steamy-soft on the inside. Lamb-beef gyros ($6.95) feature moist, well-seasoned meat and a spicy yogurt sauce. The menu also includes cheeseburgers ($6.95) and kosher hot dogs ($3). The latter are fried up crisp and served in a buttered and grilled bun. Desserts such as mango mousse ($3.95) and baklava ($2.50) are not house-made, but Elrafai says he hopes to make his own in the near future.

Those who are in a hurry can call in orders for pickup. Or for the complete Ali Baba street-dining experience, take a seat in one of the four lawn chairs on the wooden deck outside the stand, grab a cold beverage from the team-size cooler and enjoy a conversation with Elrafai while his parakeets Shahrazad and Shahryar chirp in a cage nearby.

"I love it," he said, taking a break to sit and chat. "You talk to a lot of people. . . . No office and no rules."

-- Catherine Cheney

Ali Baba Falafel 7155 Wisconsin Ave. (at Willow Lane), Bethesda, 301-520-4030. Hours: Daily, 10:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.

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