In the heart of the Marais, a ruthless battle is being fought in plain sight: Who, between L'As du Fallafel or Mi-Va-Mi, is the best dealer of chickpea patties in Paris—or should we say, the world? The 20-year-old rivalry may be nearing its final hours.
Historically, the Jewish Quarter of Paris stretches from the Rue Pavée to the Rue Vieille du Temple, passing through the Rue des Rosiers. This is where more than 100,000 Ashkenazi Jews found refuge after World War II. Today, the culinary traditions of the Jewish community survive in this corner of Paris.
It's a different world here. Religious libraries sit alongside traditional bakeries like Korcaz (where the scent of challah escapes from the building into the street every Friday morning at dawn), and atheists cross paths with Chabad Jews who grab young people in the street and place tefillin on them (the phylacteries that are worn during morning prayer). And in the middle of all this, if you're starving, you'll find authentic kosher restaurants that serve Israeli, Polish, or Tunisian dishes—food that's rich with history and attracts tourists the world over, as well as Parisian Jews who have their regular habits and favorite tables.
In the Rue des Rosiers, for example, four restaurants are competing for exclusivity rights for a dish whose reputation is widely known: falafel. Here, at the corner of the Rue des Écouffes, the battle for the best chickpea ball in the country peaks in intensity. If a customer reaches that cross street without a sandwich in hand, it means that they did not stop at Chez Hannah at street number 54, nor at King Fallafel Palace at number 26, and therefore still have an empty stomach. It means there are only two options left: L'As du Fallafel or Mi-Va-Mi. As though taken hostage, hungry passersby have no other choice but to accept to be convinced by the vendors of either business, who never cease to shout out the quality of their deep-fried balls.
In the Middle East, falafel is a staple. It is the ultimate Lebanese and Israeli street food. While its exact origins are debated, its recipe remains roughly the same from one country to the other. Basic falafel is made of chickpeas, garlic, onion, and a mix of spices. Once the dough is ready, what comes next determines the falafel's ultimate fate. If the deep frying oil is too hot, the falafels will be dark on the outside, and raw on the inside. In Lebanon, they are served with a yogurt sauce, and in Israel, it is eaten with tahini, a sesame sauce. Over in Egypt, they use fava beans instead of chickpeas. Each of these populations claim to have pioneered the falafel. And here, in Paris, the Jewish community considers the dough ball a standard in its gastronomic culture.
The origins of L'As du Fallafel go back to Isaac Peretz, a Russian Jew from the Jaffa section of Tel Aviv who decides to follow his French wife, Daisy, to Paris. In 1979, they open a small Israeli grocery store, which becomes an instant hit. Isaac wants to import his country's specialty: falafel. For two decades, Isaac and Daisy rise up as leaders of the chickpea industry, growing their business by adding tables here and there, and putting the entire family to work. In 1998, though, a war is declared: Another Russian, from the same Tel Aviv neighborhood as Isaac, decides to open a falafel restaurant across the street. With this uncanny resemblance, both commercial and personal, the first stone is thrown.
The manager of Mi-Va-Mi, a woman named Martine, hates this all-out war between the two businesses. Before she was the head of Mi-Va-Mi, she managed a tea room in the 6th arrondissement. "Life in this neighborhood is rotten. There are clans for and against L'As du Fallafel. It's like a school playground." It's no secret that the owners of L'As in no way support their opponent. In fact, to try and eliminate it, they purchased the property that houses Mi-Va-Mi. The restaurant's walls used to belong to Jo Goldenberg, the owner of another mythical restaurant in the neighborhood, which, sadly, is known for having been the location of attacks in 1982. "I've wanted to buy these walls for ten years now, and that asshole Goldenberg sold them to L'As." The bitterness is palpable. Over at L'As du Fallafel, there's no room for negotiation: "Their lease ends in July 2016, and we won't renew it."
To reel in customers, L'As du Fallafel employs ingenious methods. On one end, there's the to-go section, where a guy takes your order, cashes it in, and distributes tickets to present at the counter. On the other end is the table service, and two or three procurers lure in customers from the street, crying out, "Come eat the best falafel in the neighborhood!" John, who has been a server at L'As for many years, explains this is all part of the restaurant's folklore: "We don't really need it, but people come here for that too, because that's how Isaac originally got his customers. We uphold the tradition."
Across the street, Mi-Va-Mi has a more modest, timid style. It's tough to face the competition: "I have a clientele of regulars, people from the neighborhood, Jews that aren't very religious. No need to drum up attention in the street—my restaurant is full nonetheless," comments Martine. John insists that L'As has never paid for ads or asked for a review in the paper—word of mouth does the job. Lenny Kravitz is a faithful customer, and apparently close with the family. Dozens of photos of the rock star hang on the walls, and the front door reads: "Recommended by Lenny Kravitz." That day in the restaurant, there's a Korean couple, religious Jews, Tahitians, Japanese women taking a selfie with their sandwich...And no wonder, since the place is listed in the Guide du Routard.
With street workers and all this talk of luring people in, we're brushing up against the lexicon of prostitution, even though, in reality, food is the only thing we're dealing with here. Food is the one and only source of all these tensions: The menus at both locations are identical, and on both sides, the falafel sandwich is the bestseller. Inside the pita, you'll find salad, three or four chickpea balls, and grilled eggplant—the whole doused in hummus and tahini. The other dishes on the menu include a plate of grilled meat, breaded chicken cutlets, and shawarma.
The flagship drink in both restaurants is limonana, the famous Israeli lemonade. But who, then, makes a better falafel? That's the burning question. For John, there's no point in asking: "On Sundays, we sell 10,000 sandwiches, which means we're obviously the best on the street, and even the world." On the other side, we get the same speech: "They're bitter because ours is better, and there's nothing they can do about it," laughs Martine.
At L'as du Fallafel, a sudden commotion breaks out. A woman who takes care of to-go orders grabs John during our interview: "Can you come here a second, some woman is telling clients we aren't kosher." In the doorway, indeed, a woman of about 50 is asking for proof of the meat's provenance. Without even knowing it, she put the finger on the real reason for the troubles between the two restaurants. A few years ago still, both businesses displayed the pink sign of the beth din court, a certification given out by the Jewish consistory of Paris to prove that a restaurant is kosher. But a somber rumor has stained the reputation of Mi-Va-Mi, when L'As du Fallafel called into question the provenance of the enemy's meat. Martine lost her certification and her Jewish clientele, while her competitor continues to proudly display its sign. For Martine, the neighborhood's rejection was a tough pill to swallow: "They all turned their back on me. They don't say hi in the street. Those people are the worst kind."
Over at L'As du Fallafel, no one brings up this story. They prefer to stay evasive. "We don't have a problem with Mi-Va-Mi," says John with a smile. And so concludes the falafel mass.
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES France.