By Wayne Jebian
6:10 PM EST, November 22, 2013
Mamoun's Falafel should get something like a lifetime achievement award for New Haven restaurants, maybe even an a cappella bar song (“From the Mabrumeh down at Mamoun's...”) to nudge it closer to Pepe’s, Louis’, Claire’s and Whoever-Else’s in the local pantheon of culinary institutions. Back in the 1980s, before New Haven's restaurant renaissance, when it was really tough for insomniacs to find a safe place to sit and sip, Mamoun's was a lifeline. Along with its grainy Turkish coffee, the dolma was such a bonus.
Today, Mamoun's continues to win awards for its food, but now there are so many more choices of authentic Middle Eastern cuisine in greater New Haven. Here's the thing about really good Middle Eastern food: on the one hand, it's a top-drawer option for vegetarians who want a meal with some kind of authentic cultural flair, and on the other, Middle Eastern meat preparations have no substitute. If, say, at least one of your grandparents came from the high Caucasus mountains of present-day Turkey, or by the banks of the Euphrates, or anywhere in between, you might just have a genetic predisposition to melt at the wafting smell of lamb cooking nearby.
In fact, lamb could be considered a kind of litmus test of authenticity. Lamb is a point of pride, with different recipes marking the tastes and agricultural output of a region, a nation, or even a tribe — a hometown brand — like having an edible mascot. One example is a traditional Moroccan preparation served at the Kasbah Garden Cafe on Howe Street, called Lamb Tagine, cooked with preserved lemons, olives, peppers and Moroccan spices. “It’s delicious; it’s good stuff,” said Lahcen Alouah, one of the restaurant’s business partners.
Saray Turkish Restaurant in West Haven serves its Lamb Halal, which, for observant Muslims, is like being Glatt Kosher, certified by a higher authority. Hmm... what to chose when the meat is already, literally, divine? For owner Sammy Kuru, the go-to is adana kebab, the original seasoned slab, with or without the stick. According to Murat Firigan, chef and owner of the Istanbul Cafe on Crown Street, in southern Turkey chefs make adana kebabs up to thirty-six-feet long. What sets those at Istanbul apart? White pepper, for starters, and charcoal-broiling for finishers.
Lamb at Mamoun’s is food for the people, just like you’d get from a streetside cart, that is, nothing fancier than shawarma. Little has changed since the Neolithic period except for the addition of plates and silverware, which makes it ironic that vegetarians are responsible for bringing Mamoun’s to New Haven and subsequently keeping it afloat.
Mamoun’s opened on May 6, 1977 around six years after its first location opened in Greenwich village. Founder Mamoun Chater first came to New York from Damascus, Syria, speaking and reading almost no English. Thankfully, Chater fell in with James Mitchell, who has worked at Mamoun’s on and off since the beginning, eventually becoming a family friend and informal spokesperson for the business.
“The story goes that a number of musicians that were originally from New Haven were in New York a lot,” began Mitchell. “The musician’s life really is the night life, because you’re either in a studio at night, or you’re playing out at night, and Mamoun’s in New York was open ‘til five at the time.”
“All these musicians were vegetarians,” continued Mitchell, “including Michael Bolotin, today known as Michael Bolton. Before Mamoun’s opened in New Haven, folks would say, ‘Hey, I’m going to Mamoun’s in New York,’ and people would hand them long lists of what to bring back. These people, all vegetarians, would be ordering like 50 falafels at a time. The whole basis of the restaurant was this ever-growing group of vegetarians. Back then, there was no concept of veganism, but as a matter of fact, everything vegetarian at Mamoun’s is also vegan.”
You read that correctly. No feta cheese. No Labne. No Greek yogurt. At Mamoun’s, you’re too busy eating to notice the absence; in fact, most Middle Eastern restaurants in New Haven are like this. If you can’t contemplate eating out without getting your cheese on, then you might want to fixate on the Turkish options mentioned above, or on our restaurant list.
“There were quite a number of customers in the beginning who were also Jewish,” explained Mitchell. “They requested that Mamoun not bring in any dairy, as something that would make life easier for people who kept Kosher.”
Okay, let’s get this straight: thanks to a bunch of Jewish vegans we can now order a lamb steak at a Syrian restaurant on Howe Street. Got it... only in New Haven. Mitchell agreed: “It turned out to be a good fit because New Haven is a lot like a mini New York, it’s is an international city, it’s got universities. It’s got Yale.”
Great Middle Eastern Food in New Haven (or nearby)
Aladdin Crown Pizza
260 Crown St., New Haven, (203) 773-3772
Cedar Falafel House
702 Boston Post Rd., West Haven, (203) 937-1881
Dunya International Market and Deli
584 Plank Rd., Waterbury, (203) 753-2221
Istanbul Café New Haven
245 Crown St., New Haven, (203) 787-3881
Kasbah Garden Cafe
105 Howe St., New Haven, (203) 777-5053
Mamoun's Falafel Restaurant
85 Howe St., New Haven, (203) 562-8444
140 Orange St., New Haven, (203) 624-0589
21 Whitney Ave., New Haven, (203) 776-7482
170 Temple St., New Haven, (203) 773-3306
Saray Turkish Restaurant
770 Campbell Ave., West Haven, (203) 937-0707
Sultans Turkish Restaurant
586 Plank Rd., Waterbury, (203) 591-8450
Turkish Kebab House
1157 Campbell Ave., West Haven, (203) 933-0002