Falafel have never tasted better as a popular farmers market stand evolves into a bricks-and-mortar restaurant.
Forget about erratic polling numbers or cringe-worthy gaffes. The big surprise of this election season is why some enterprising campaign hasn't latched onto Erica Strait's quintessentially American success story and exploited it for political gain.
Someone should, because it's the brand of compelling tale of smarts and hard work that appeals to vast swaths of the electoral landscape: South Dakota farm kid ("from the middle of nowhere," Strait said with a laugh) studies mass communications in college, heads to New York City and enrolls in both culinary and nutrition school, then earns her cooking chops while laboring in a string of high-profile Manhattan kitchens.
Tired of funneling the bulk of her hard-earned income to her landlord, Strait relocates to Minneapolis, where she finds herself craving falafel. Unfortunately, nothing she encounters comes close to the meticulously crafted falafel that are a hallmark of her mentor, Israeli-American chef Einat Admony.
Ever the entrepreneur, Strait saw an opening. "So I called her and said, 'I want to make falafel in Minneapolis, are you cool with that?'" recalls Strait. "And Einat gave me the falafel blessing."
That was three years ago. Foxy Falafel began quietly at a farmers market that quickly -- and justifiably -- attracted some major word of mouth, proving that Strait's instincts regarding the Twin Cities' woeful place on the falafel-meter were correct. Demand is driving growth; Foxy now boasts seven employees and a dramatically expanded platform that includes a food truck and a counter-service restaurant.
The latter debuted in early August, simmering with Strait's enthusiastically flavored, holistic-minded cooking. Yep, fast food has taken an ambitious leap forward.
The excellence naturally starts with hand-formed falafel, balls of mashed organic chickpeas and garden-fresh herbs that are carefully fried in canola oil until the bite-size croquettes turn gently crisp and tantalizingly brown on the outside, rich and creamy on the inside. They are superb, and Strait uses them as the basis of an overstuffed pita sandwich, as the centerpiece in an abundant salad and as the starring attraction on a snack plate.
The straight-up version is plenty appealing, particularly when a half-dozen of them are stuffed into a hummus-swiped pita brimming with tomatoes, crunchy cucumbers and lightly seasoned (and slightly vinegar-ey) cabbage. A trio of sauces provide a finishing flourish: a cool cucumber- and mint-enhanced yogurt, a zesty lemon-boosted tahini and a thick, assertive harissa that Strait ought to consider bottling and putting into wide-scale distribution. The kitchen works fast, and the resulting multi-dimensional blend of nuanced textures, flavors and temperatures is remarkable, particularly given the $7 price tag.
Still, the curry falafel -- humming with turmeric, cumin and cardamom flavor notes -- is even better, although it just might be topped by the even more creative beet rendition, its slightly sweet and wonderfully earthy bite enhanced by tangy goat cheese and judicious pops of preserved lemon.
While gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan diners have found a welcome haven, Foxy also gives meat eaters a reason to visit. Rather than spit-roasted molded meats for a traditional gyro, Strait approximates its most mouth-watering attributes -- while simultaneously preserving the qualities of the family farm-raised poultry and meat that she buys -- with a technique that yields grade-A results.
Chicken is roasted with onions, garlic and tons of pepper. The meat is sliced thin and seared on the stove until it accumulates bits of caramelized tastiness, then is abundantly stacked inside a cabbage-dressed pita. Strait's version of shawarma invokes turkey breasts marinated overnight in coriander, cayenne, turmeric and garlic, then sliced thin and seared on the stove in that same tantalizingly browned state. Gently sweet grilled onions play nicely against the turkey's frisky seasoning, and each big, sloppy bite pretty much says, "This is how you do quick-service food."
The weak link, and it's not a deal-breaker by any means, is the semi-drab whole wheat pitas that originate from a Minneapolis commercial bakery; they're a pay grade or two lower than the detail-minded components that liberally spill out of them.
Desserts are simple, a small selection of cookies that are models of the gluten-free genre, but anyone accustomed to their white flour counterparts might be in for a disappointment. No matter, since St. Paul Classic Cookie Co. is right around the corner.
A growing menu
Because she shops her fellow farmers market vendors, Strait can rattle off the provenance of every dill-scented yellow wax bean and clove-tickled cauliflower floret on the colorful pickled vegetable plate that accompanies each order.
Two thumbs way up for the supple and teasingly smoky baba ghanoush. Oh, and the lamb burger? Its paprika and roasted red pepper accents only enhance its well-seasoned attributes.
The brief chalkboard menu is slowly expanding. A recent salad blended dainty quinoa, juicy watermelon, salty feta and cool basil, appealing in its last-gasps-of-summer lightness.
Autumn's approach is being heralded by the arrival of soups, and if the sweet/hot tones of a Thai-inspired broth are an accurate preview of coming attractions, Foxy fans are going to be kept warm all winter.
Another planned addition is a single daily dinner entree, priced around $15. "We're not a fine-dining venue," said Strait. "But I also want to show that we can do nice food that's more geared toward the traditional dining-out experience."
The small-scale setting -- with its casual, pop-up vibe -- reflects Strait's warm, outgoing personality. There's a short and inexpensive beer and wine selection. Happy hour (3 to 6 p.m. weekdays) is an ideal time for a Foxy initiation, when 25 cents buys a single falafel ball. "Other people do 25-cent chicken wings, I do 25-cent falafel balls," Strait said with a laugh. "You can try all three flavors, and spend less than a dollar." Sign me up.
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