Falafel’s Drive-In still serves hamburgers and hotdogs, a throwback from 56 years ago, when it was a Snow White Drive-In. But it was the homemade falafels that founder Anton Nijmeh added to the menu that gave San Jose its first taste of Middle Eastern cuisine and made the little diner world famous.
“Dad just made little batches of them and would give one away with every order,” his son, William Nijmeh, said. “He’d quote an old commercial saying, ‘Try it, you’ll like it.’ The customers thought they were really good, and things just grew from there.”
Anton had been a police officer and a pig farmer before bringing his family to America from Ramla, Israel in 1966. He had no previous experience as a chef and did not speak English, but when his brother offered him a chance to run Snow White, he took it.
“My dad was a great cook,” William said. “Back in the old days, I would bring my friends over to dinner, and they freaked out over how good it was. They always ask me over and over to invite them to dinner again.”
With no restaurants in the Bay Area at the time selling traditional Middle Eastern foods, Anton’s instinct to make and give away falafels was a stroke of marketing genius. Anton died in 2006, but the family still uses a recipe that was passed down through generations, preparing the falafels every morning from freshly ground chickpeas and a mix of herbs.
Fried to order, they are a dusky brown on the outside and a dazzling Wizard-of-Oz green on the inside. Accompanied by fresh lettuce, tomato, cucumber and garlicky tahini sauce, they can be had as a salad or scooped into pita bread.
The recipe is a closely guarded secret. Anton used to retreat to a back room to mix and form the falafels, far from the prying eyes of competitors, who are still trying to copy the recipe decades later.
“They come here, order falafel, then take them back and dissect them,” William said. “They try hard to figure it out, but we have been doing it so long that making them is as natural as walking or drinking water. There are a million recipes for falafel, but ours are perfect.”
Even the bananas for Falafal’s amazing banana milkshakes are close to a trade secret. “They come from a very good brand,” William said. “I love them so much I won’t tell anyone where I get them.”
As the falafels became more popular, hamburgers and hot dogs were pushed down the menu to make room for items like the creamy baba ghannouj, made with smoked eggplant and tahini sauce or the smooth-as-silk hummus, made with chickpeas, lemon and olive oil.
Both dishes come with a spoonful of red pepper harissa sauce that provides a nice contrast, adding a touch of sweet spiciness. The sauce is very popular with customers, and Falafel’s sells it by the jar.
Another customer favorite, the tabbouleh, is a nicely balanced mix of chopped parsley, tomatoes, mint, cucumber and onion with just enough cracked wheat to keep the fluffy ingredients from binding together. The fresh greens give it an almost explosive flavor, and, like many of the dishes, it is both vegan and vegetarian.
“We source only the best ingredients,” William said. “My dad would take me to the market, and I learned how to pick out vegetables. How good are they? Delicious. People can taste our vegetables. You get all the flavor.”
Sarah Dagnino, operations manager for the LEAD scholars program at Santa Clara University, was picking up food for a school event. She recommended the falafels for first-time customers.
“They’re crunchy on the outside and very soft on the inside,” she said. “If you haven’t had this type of food before, it’s not overpowering. It’s very subtle, but you get a lot of flavors.”
Dagnino said that one reason her students love the food is even those with dietary restrictions can enjoy something on the menu.
“It’s quality food made with good ingredients,” she said. “You can tell that right away. Everything is fresh, and you can tell they definitely care about their customers and how the dishes are prepared.”
Word of mouth brings in customers from all over America, especially after being featured on Food Network programs like “Man vs. Food” and Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.” But fame hasn’t changed William’s approach to quality and service.
“We try hard and we think we have it down,” William said. “When you come every time it’s always going be tasty and as good as it was the first time. And as good as when we started, 56 years ago.”
Contact Robert Eliason at [email protected].
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