Health-conscious eating is all too often at odds with fast food.
But local fans of Greek and Middle Eastern street food know where to reconcile cost, convenience and comfort with the desire for wholesome meals.
Happy Falafel serves "Mediterranean-style fast food" from a hole-in-the-wall storefront in an Ashland strip mall within easy walking distance of Southern Oregon University. The namesake dish, a fritter of ground, seasoned chickpeas, is a popular vegetarian snack throughout the Middle East. Several versions of souvlaki, including grilled chicken, shrimp and organic lamb, are commonplace Greek fare. Whatever their provenance, the pita-pocket and flatbread sandwiches command a loyal following locally.
"I don't eat out a whole lot, so for me to choose this ... it's one of my favorites," says Ashland resident Charlie McChesney. "I always get a falafel."
The native of Philadelphia, where Greek cuisine is prevalent, says she has been patronizing Happy Falafel since it opened in fall 2004. Purchasing the restaurant in 2009, Ben Pazir didn't consider changing the menu because Happy Falafel was among the town's few places serving fast, inexpensive food that he liked to eat.
"It was tasty; it was healthy," says Pazir.
The 47-year-old California resident, who also owns Siskiyou Cyclery, says he instituted a few improvements to the food-preparation process and purchased some new equipment to ensure efficiency. Persian, Pazir grew up eating plenty of grilled meats in the form of kebabs and says he adjusted original Happy Falafel recipes for better, more consistent flavor. He also searched far and wide for the best pita and flatbreads.
"Those are pretty healthy foods ... meat and bread and vegetables," he says.
Vegetables Happy Falafel serves aplenty, and Pazir insists that they're cut fresh daily. The ubiquitous topping of cucumbers and tomatoes are diced with almost geometric precision before being drizzled with house-made tzatziki, a yogurt-based sauce traditional in Greece.
Served as a combination plate for $4.95 with vegetarian hummus — a chickpea spread — and baba ghanoush — similar to the former but with roasted eggplant — the tzatziki can make a light meal with generous portions of warm pita for dipping. Healthful olive oil garnishes the spreads and is used to marinate meats, along with lemon juice and a mixture of 36 spices, says Happy Falafel manager Dylan Lavine.
Happy Falafel makes a dairy-free, vegan version of pesto that also omits the typical nuts, a common allergen. The only sauce that isn't made in-house is the Caesar, which garnishes a chicken pita and seasons salads with or without grilled chicken.
"We can do any of our sandwiches as salads," says Lavine, explaining that gluten-free meals are becoming a common request. "They don't want the pita bread."
For those customers with autoimmune reactions, allergies or a prejudice against foods containing wheat, Happy Falafel serves up a starchy alternative in the form of fresh-cut french fries. Topped with crumbled feta cheese and roasted garlic, the large order of Greek fries easily serves two people as a side dish.
Lower in calories is the vegan lentil soup or individual falafel balls, flash-fried until slightly crunchy on the outside but soft on the inside. On the other end of eaters' ethics is The Bomb, an extra-meat gyro with fries and spicy sauce stuffed inside the pita pocket. In between are the small versions of falafel and gyros, which at $5.95 leave room in the wallet and stomach to tack on plain fries and a beverage for $2.
Removing Happy Falafel's soda machine perhaps has been Pazir's most obvious influence. The restaurant sells some bottled sodas but also all-natural juices and sparkling, fruit-flavored waters, such as Pellegrino.
"We wanted to offer something better," says Pazir, explaining that it gives customers "an alternative to cut down on calories."
Milkshakes are made with fresh bananas and whole, frozen strawberries — not artificial fruit flavors. Happy Falafel's other sweet treat is baklava, both plain and chocolate-covered. These small but rich, many-layered, nut-filled pastries are adored by many customers who generally care most about quality, freshness and fast preparation, says Pazir.
"You get your meal in four minutes," says McChesney, perched on the cushioned bench that runs the length of one wall. A bar-height counter on the opposite wall frequently hosts students, professionals and families, who spill out onto picnic tables in fine weather.
"It's very good," she adds. "I love it."