There are only so many ways to prepare falafel — that most Israeli of treats — right?
Don’t tell that to Ofir Bass and Linda Clumeck, who began testing the food’s limits a few years ago when they opened Falafelicious in Northridge. For about two days straight, they worked together like mad scientists in the kitchen, mixing family recipes. (He’s Israeli, and she’s of Jewish-Egyptian heritage.)
“We were just mixing combinations of … my family’s recipe and different things, different spices, different vegetables, how to make it hold together,” Clumeck said.
The result: Traditional Falafel made from garbanzo beans and green split peas, Golden Sesame Falafel with yellow split peas and Spicy Sun-dried Tomato Falafel made with red lentils and chilis.
The duo mixed and molded these into a host of other forms: falafel burgers, falafel sliders, falafel salad, falafel on a stick, a falafel pita sandwich, even falafel tacos.
But there was one thing they couldn’t do.
“We actually tried to make sweet falafels, but that didn’t work,” Bass said. “We were trying to make dessert. It just tasted horrible. We just couldn’t get it to work. It was just bad.”
Not so for the rest of their creations, which mix a perfectly crunchy outside with a soft, flavorful interior. Still, Bass, 37, said it hasn’t been easy to make falafel here that’s comparable to what he’s used to back home, growing up in Rishon LeZion, south of Tel Aviv.
“I tried the falafel that they sell here in the United States. It’s not as authentic … different sizes, different shapes,” he said. “You use the same ingredients here and you use the ingredients there and it doesn’t taste the same.”
So the Chatsworth resident began to import spices from Israel and even went so far as to have his father, who still lives in Israel, FedEx him a kitchen tool used there to scoop and mold the falafel balls.
“Dad’s coming again, and he’s bringing a couple more,” Bass said. “We try to make it here like they do in the Middle East. … Ours is pretty close to the real deal.”
This delicious experiment began in 2011, after Clumeck — a Burbank native who now lives in Tarzana — met Bass at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood. At that point, she had already been toying with starting a falafel food truck.
“Falafel was a special treat in my family. If you were eating falafel, it was a holiday … or something. We ate a lot of Middle Eastern foods,” said Clumeck, a former manager of a Starbucks and California Pizza Kitchen. “I always had a passion for food, and I love to learn our heritage and our traditions.”
Bass learned his way around a kitchen thanks to his uncle, chef Hannan Sagi, of the Israeli Chefs Association.
“We used to go over there as kids all the time — for holidays, for Shabbat dinner and for family gatherings,” he said. “I always kind of looked [over] his shoulder. I wanted to see what he was doing. He kind of showed me some tricks and some recipes.”
Bass’s first job, at 15, was washing dishes. In 2005, when he moved to the U.S., he found work as a server at an Olive Garden before running a family restaurant in the Valley.
“Eventually I was ready to go ahead and do it for myself,” he said.
Today, Falafelicious — the name was coined by Bass’s wife, Dana — has its brick-and-mortar location in a plaza near the Northridge Fashion Center. (A satellite food truck began setting up shop at Pierce College in Woodland Hills in February.)
The narrow, modern restaurant has a wide-ranging menu that far exceeds the implications of its name. There are plenty of Middle Eastern favorites, including chicken shawarma, hummus, schnitzel, kebabs, Mediterranean coleslaw and a variety of salads.
But it’s hard to ignore the obvious. As Clumeck, 31, noted: “We can’t call ourselves Falafelicious and just offer one falafel.”
The spicy falafel — vegan and gluten-free, like the other falafel varieties — is based on an Indian recipe, Bass said. It offers just the right bit of kick, especially when eaten in a taco, where it’s paired with tahini, hot sauce and coleslaw. And the experience of folding two falafel balls in a thin tortilla instead of a puffy pita is a fun change-up.
The restaurant offers several burgers — ground beef, turkey, kofta and chicken — but it’s the one made from a large, flat falafel patty that really stands out. Served with hummus, babaganoush, coleslaw, cucumber, a special sauce and other fixings, it manages to come together seamlessly. Ditto for the sliders, which pair crispy falafel balls with hummus, tomato, onion and cucumber. The result is one crunchy skyscraper of a sandwich.
It’s all about finding the right balance of texture, shape and fresh ingredients, said Bass, a father of two. A little bit of creativity helps, too, especially when your main dish appears so frequently across your menu.
“It’s Falafelicious, so half of our menu is falafel,” Bass said. “That’s why we came up with three different kinds of falafel. … Everything we do here, we try to make it modern.”
Falafelicious 19500 Plummer St., Northridge
818-576-9900 | falafelicious.net
Photos by Lynn Pelkey