The fifty-year history of a San Jose institution
THE SANTA CLARA
November 10, 2016
America is hamburger and fries country. Always has been, always will be. This was especially the case in 1966, when Anton Nijmeh moved his family from the Middle East to San Jose to open a drive-in.
For years, customers eagerly devoured his brand of American eats without ever wondering what else Nijmeh could whip up. Until one day, when Nijmeh began to introduce his customers to falafel, a Middle Eastern fast-food dish consisting of ground chickpeas, herbs and spices that are formed into balls and deep fried to perfection. His family recipe soon converted many palates, and eventually morphed Falafel’s Drive- In from an American roadstop to a Middle Eastern haven.
Located on Steven’s Creek Boulevard in San Jose, Falafel’s Drive-In is currently celebrating it’s fiftieth year of business. Though Nijmeh has passed, his children still own and operate the business, paying homage to their father’s legacy with quick service and a friendly demeanor.
Falafel’s gives off a laid-back, dive-y vibe. Picnic tables are scattered throughout the patio and murals depicting life in San Jose adorn the walls. Though indoor seating is available, customers don’t seem to mind sitting outside, as the weather in the South Bay is never too awful to enjoy some falafel (sorry about that).
Speaking of the falafel, it’s a revelation—perfectly seasoned, with a crunchy outside and pillowy inside. Though tremendous on its own, the falafel is even better nestled inside of a falafel sandwich.
Each sandwich packs loads of falafel into a pita pocket with crunchy lettuce, juicy tomatoes, refreshing cucumbers, cooling tahini and a sweet chili hot sauce that would taste good on a piece of tree bark. For $9.50, customers can get the “Best Value” deal—a large falafel sandwich and a banana milkshake. And it really is the best deal in the South Bay. My one piece of advice is to bring napkins (for the messy sandwich and your inevitable tears of joy).
For meat-eaters, look no further than the gyro sandwich, which replaces the falafel in the falafel sandwich with slow-cooked, spicy beef steak. The meat fills the pita pocket to the brim, and, like the falafel, works as a comforting contrast to the condiments and fresh veggies. For $8.25, it’s a total bang for your buck.
My personal favorite item is the hummus plate. To me, any Middle Eastern restaurant worth its salt must be judged by its hummus. The same goes for judging pizzerias by their margherita pizza or taquerias by their soft tacos. Any good restaurant must master the fundamentals.
I can say, without hyperbole, that the hummus at Falafel’s Drive-In is the greatest hummus I have ever had the privilege of eating. It’s garlicky, tangy, smooth and creamy. Topped with olive oil and the sweet chili hot sauce, it becomes even more complex—each bite more enticing than the last. Fresh pita bread, veggies and pita chips are all acceptable vessels for transporting the heavenly puree into your gullet.
Trust me, the hummus is frickin’ heroin. I’m gonna need a weekly fix until the day I die … and probably for a few weeks after that.
Similarly delectable is the baba ghannouj—a blend of roasted eggplant, tahini, garlic, lemon juice and olive oil. It deftly blends smokiness and acidity, and is a memorable taste of traditional Middle Eastern cuisine.
The biggest surprise of all is the koubby, a meatball made up of ground beef, onions, cracked wheat and pine nuts. The kitchen often sells out, so you’ve got to get it while you can. And if you do, be prepared for a challenging and intriguing approach to the standard meatball. It’s different, but like everything else on the menu, worth trying.
Fifty years in, and generations of loyal customers—including America’s spiky-haired glutton, Guy Fieri—have continued to brave long lines in order to earn their grub at Falafel’s Drive-In. Whether you’re vegetarian, vegan, meat-obsessed or halal, there’s a bevy of Middle Eastern cuisine waiting for you in San Jose.
America may always be hamburger and fries country, but you wouldn’t know it at Falafel’s Drive-In. Though once a destination for traditional American fare, the Drive-In has brushed aside burgers and fries in favor of falafel and hummus. What can I say—things change. And change is delicious.
Contact Jimmy Flynn at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.