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Max’s black-and-white sign in the corner of the Wheaton Manor Shopping Center offers only three words of description: “Kosher Café” and “Marketplace.” They don’t tell half the story.
Take the “Marketplace.” It died years ago. The “Kosher Café” may be very much alive, but its defining characteristic feels as elusive as the ghost of that long-dead marketplace. While the cafe serves up a well-peppered and not-too-trimmed pastrami sandwich and an ethereal matzo-ball soup, it also peddles chicken nuggets and chili. The culinary dissonance gets even louder when you realize that the reason most people visit Max’s cannot be divined from its sign at all. The restaurant’s most popular dishes—by far—are its falafel and shawarma.
Majority partners Shaukat Karimi and Larry Dekelbaum have shown a taste for the offbeat ever since Max’s opened in 1994—they even dealt sushi for a brief period—but when they decided to go Middle Eastern in 1996, they were at a slight disadvantage. They didn’t know jack about making falafel or shawarma. They began their education by picking up the phone and buzzing restaurants in D.C. and New York, looking for someone, anyone, to teach them the basics. They even called the Israeli embassy. No one would bite.
Dekelbaum then got a phone call from a friend in Israel, who said that a chef in Haifa had agreed to show someone from Max’s the fine art of falafel- and shawarma-making. There was only one catch: The trainee would have to travel to Israel. So Dekelbaum caught a plane to Haifa, where he met Momi Hoummran, who was making falafel and shawarma at a local restaurant.
Following his crash course in the ways of Hoummran, Dekelbaum returned home to implement what he had learned. His result wasn’t a perfect replica of Hoummran’s, Dekelbaum recalls, but it was close enough. Within a year, though, the cafe was turning out falafel and shawarma as if Hoummran himself ran Max’s Middle Eastern counter, tucked into a corner of a high-ceilinged, white-washed restaurant that has all the personality of a Costco. In fact, Hoummran was. The chef had called Dekelbaum to ask for a job. The partners wasted no time in applying for a “specialty occupation” visa for Hoummran.
Falafel recipes are as unique as the individuals who make them; Hoummran’s version relies on texture as much as flavor. When you bite through the outer layer of his fritter, you earn an immediate reward for cracking a coating that’s as crunchy as chopped peanuts—not just a soft and slightly spicy interior, but also a sense of something ancient in that little ball. Part of the secret is the batter itself, which Hoummran processes more coarsely than your average falafel maker, who tends to purée the legumes until the whole mess resembles hummus, which is then deep-fried into uniform balls with the character of frozen French fries. The other part is more indefinable—a mixture of Middle Eastern spices that smacks of places more exotic than Max’s tile floors and torn-leather booths.
Hoummran’s fritters are so good, in fact, they help you understand why there’s an ongoing food fight between the Israelis and Palestinians over the lowly falafel. For those keeping score, Israelis consider the falafel their national snack, a designation that Yael Raviv, writing in Gastronomica a few years back, claimed that the nationalist movement had adopted as “a signifier of Israeli pride” and as a symbol of its historical connection to the land. Palestinians think that’s a lot of hooey. They consider Israel’s adoption of the fritter a shameful usurpation of a traditional Arabic food, and they view Israel’s embrace of falafel as yet another example of the world stripping an Arabic dish of its true origins.
No matter which side you favor in this bitter debate, you can’t argue with the fact that Hoummran has taken this humble food—really Middle Eastern fast food—and made it his own. His work is one of culinary assimilation, transformation, and relocation to the heart of Wheaton; his falafel has its roots, literally, in the Promised Land. The chef’s shawarma, by contrast, could benefit from a little more tradition. Max’s shuns the classic lamb shawarma for a more waistband-friendly turkey version, with only small amounts of lamb for flavor. It’s a clammy combination that reminds you of too many bad Thanksgiving dinners.
Whether you order the shawarma or the falafel, that main ingredient is just one of many that you can stuff into your commercial-brand pita that’s sliced wide open for maximum loading. Max’s features an entire counter of garnishes that you can have spooned, drizzled, or sprinkled onto your falafel or shawarma, everything from pickled eggplant to cucumber-and-tomato salad to shug, an Israeli hot sauce.
Each garnish can add a layer of complexity to Hoummran’s fritters—the burn of the hot sauce alternating with the cool cucumbers mixing with the nutty creaminess of the tahini sauce. But if you’re not discriminating, Max’s falafel makers will end up overloading your pita. This is a mistake, not only because the condiments smother the fritters but also because too much liquid can cause your flatbread to disintegrate. You might end up eating your falafel with a fork, picking at the mass of accumulated pickled and marinated vegetables at the bottom of your plastic red basket.
This is no way to treat one of the best falafels you’re ever likely to encounter, one that already has more excess baggage than any food should ever have to carry.
Max’s Kosher Café, 2319 University Blvd., Wheaton, Md., (301) 949-6297.
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