Liba Falafel

Liba Falafel is known for its unconventional condiments that eaters customize to their tastes  as they top their crispy fritters.

Liba Falafel is known for its unconventional condiments that eaters customize to their tastes as they top their crispy fritters.

AT HOME IN OAKLAND
Liba Falafel Sets Down Roots

BY SARAH HENRY ◊ PHOTOGRAPHY BY  SCOTT PETERSON

Falafel may have Middle Eastern roots, but Gail Lillian’s version of these garbanzo bean balls have a California twist.

Falafel may have Middle Eastern roots, but Gail Lillian’s version of these garbanzo bean balls have a California twist.

Liba Falafel, the food truck, has had lots of loyal fans since it started rolling five years ago, but its owner, Gail Lillian, always wanted a brick-and-mortar joint for her falafel business. In fact, she hopes to run several falafel shacks. The first opened in July 2014 on a tree-lined street in Oakland’s Uptown, a neighborhood already bustling with places to eat. And, no surprise here, it’s been a hit from the beginning.

Lillian’s inspiration for Liba Falafel dates back to a trip to Amsterdam in 2000, where she stumbled upon a hole-in-the-wall falafel shop. Returning home, she realized there was nothing like that in the Bay Area. She continued working in the food industry, including stints as a private chef, café manager, and pastry chef, and thought about opening a café featuring her pastries and breads. The economic downturn in 2008 forced her to reevaluate her plan, and she decided a food truck seemed more financially viable. That’s when she circled back to the falafel idea, and her mobile food business was born. She named it after a word that means “love” in several languages. Anyone who eats at Liba Falafel knows Lillian loves serving up an extensive, eclectic condiment selection.

Liba Falafel’s salad bar—with its 15 to 20 toppings that gussy up those garbanzo-bean-ball pita sandwiches or mixed greens and falafel plates—sets it apart from other falafel places. The salad-and-sauce bar includes intriguing taste and texture combinations such as raw Brussels sprouts and julienned red apple slaw; smoked baba ganoush; hefty pickles in a dill brine; and bright-pink beet hummus in a squeeze bottle. Heat seekers reach for the fiery red harissa flavored with ground caraway seeds, or the spicy green zhoug, a Yemeni hot sauce spiked with Serrano chilies, cardamom, cloves, and herbs. Fried pickled onions and candied rosemary peanuts add chewiness, chunks of feta offer creaminess, and apple chutney serves as a sweet note. Regular fixings such as Moroccan carrot salad and chimmichurri herb sauce sit alongside rotating seasonal items that highlight what’s best right now.

Sweet, savory, salty, and spicy flavors all play their roles on the plate at Liba Falafel.

Sweet, savory, salty, and spicy flavors all play their roles on the plate at Liba Falafel.

The sesame dotted chickpea patties are ideal carriers for all these condiments. Lillian’s version of this vegetarian morsel is coarse, crunchy, even tending to the dry side. “I find most falafel gets ‘tired’ after a few bites because it can be so homogeneous. That’s why we grind our falafel more coarsely than most. It has more texture so it can stand up to multiple sauces and salads,” says this seasoned culinary professional. “Balancing a meal with sweet and savory flavors keeps our brains and taste buds more engaged.”

Vegetable soups highlighting the local harvest are served with spiced pita chips. In-house aguas frescas such as hibiscus-mint and an almond-date horchata round out the flavor-filled menu. A note to newcomers: Don’t pass up the garlic-studded sweet potato fries.

Lillian likes color on and off the plate. Her bright, lime-green walls and refinished wooden-plank tables make for a cheery and welcoming space. She says she was drawn to the building’s “good bones,” with its exposed brick and high ceilings.

The falafel maker enjoys having a solid home and is delighted that Liba, the restaurant, found a base in Oakland, where she lives. “It’s so much easier to run a restaurant than a truck,” she says. “We have more control over our surroundings, which is a big deal. Being mobile is extremely challenging. It’s a great way to start a business, to get a reputation across a wide audience, but I would never get another truck.”

She’d like to open her next spot in San Francisco’s Financial District. But for now she’s tweaking her first location, including opening for dinner Monday through Thursday. Judging by the lunch lines at the happy hunting at the salad bar, locals do indeed love Liba.

Liba Falafel, 380 17th St (near Webster) Oakland. libafalafel.com

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