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Happy Falafel

Mail Tribune readers revealed a fondness for flatbread in their pick of Pita Pit as best new restaurant in the newspaper's annual Readers Choice poll.

The chain, founded in Ontario, Canada, and franchised across the United States serves Mediterranean-inspired wraps at locations in Medford and Ashland. Ethnic specialities like falafel, hummus and baba ghanoush cozy up to more pedestrian chicken Caesar and Philly steak pitas.

More authentic still is the locally owned Happy Falafel restaurant in Ashland. Serving popular Greek and Middle Eastern street foods since fall 2004, Happy Falafel has expanded its menu along with its following and gained a new owner this year.

Prices have gone up in the five years since Happy Falafel opened, when it enjoyed the distinction of selling every item for $5 or less. Customers can save with a meal deal that pairs fresh-cut fries and a fountain drink with any sandwich for $2.10. The small falafel remains an attractive dish for $4.75, and the combo plate of hummus, baba ghanoush and tzatziki, served with generous portions of warm pita is practically a meal all by itself ($3.95).

The combo plate was a must when a friend and I stopped into the Ashland Street shop on a recent weeknight. I also ordered the lamb souvlaki meal with Greek fries, which tacked $3.75 onto the $9.25 for my organic lamb sandwich. My friend ordered a small gyro ($4.75) and secured my promise to share some of the fries seasoned with fresh garlic and feta cheese.

Newer menu items include a pesto shrimp pita ($7.25), ahi tuna souvlaki ($7.95) and chicken, lamb, tuna and shrimp skewers served with dipping sauce. Gyros and falafel come in small and large sizes, as well as the sides of fries. For dessert, there's house-made baklava ($2.25) and tiramisu ($3.75).

The menu hasn't changed since Ben Pazir purchased Happy Falafel in January, but the owner of Siskiyou Cyclery says he replaced the old grill to guarantee food would come out consistently fast and hot. If our order is any indication, his plan is being executed flawlessly.

The pillowy pita was almost too hot to handle and left no doubt of its freshness. My lamb was perfectly cooked to medium as requested. Even the tomatoes and cucumbers were diced into nearly geometric cubes. The drizzle of tzatziki — a Greek yogurt and mint sauce — was in ideal proportion to the sandwich's other components.

More tzatziki, this time adorned with good-quality olive oil awaited on the combo plate. Happy Falafel provided more than enough flatbread to scoop up the garlicky chickpea and eggplant dips, but the hummus, baba ghanoush and tzatziki are delicious in lieu of ketchup with the fries, which composed a larger portion than we could consume.

Along with my soda, I juggled a banana milkshake ($3.94) that I pledged to take home to my husband. Made with fresh bananas, not artificial flavoring, the milkshake was pleasingly thin in contrast to the thick slurries that are so common and require gut-busting effort to drink with a straw. The chunks of banana didn't impede the few sips I took just to ensure it would be appreciated at home.

Even if they had to be eaten later, the desserts also were too tempting to pass up. From previous experience, I knew the baklava with its crunchy nuts and flaky phyllo pastry was superb, but tiramisu is another household favorite.

Portioned in clear, compostable cups derived from corn, the tiramisu was thicker than and not as flavorful as other versions I'd had, with a high ratio of mascarpone cheese to whipped cream and chocolate. For my money, I'd take the baklava next time — with a banana milkshake.

— Sarah Lemon