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The quest for an affordable and fulfilling bite to eat in New York City has sparked thousands of “Best of” lists over the years. There is one place that has topped many such lists for almost fifty years. Located in a bustling stretch of the South Village Historic District, one modest 200 sq. foot shop has been serving healthy, affordable and satiating food since long before it was de riguer. Mamoun’s Falafel at 119 MacDougal Street is our January 2020 Business of the Month.
Opened in 1971 by Syrian immigrant Mamoun Chater on the street to which his family moved in 1969, Mamoun’s Falafel remains a family-run enterprise. The signature item is of course the falafel pita sandwich, stuffed with freshly made falafel and fresh veggies, and with a delicious coat of tahini sauce. But don’t overlook their other quick-serve selections like the tabouli and baba ganouj delicacies, a great hummus, and delicious meat options from shwarma to kebab.
Greenwich Village in the early 1970s was home to a small but prominent Arab community, where you could find Arabic spoken on the street, which is how Galal Chater learned to speak it. He is one of four of Mamoun’s sons that carry on the family legacy and business. Mamoun opened the shop after working at an Armenian grocery store on the block. And why a falafel joint? Galal, who still lives on MacDougal and graduated from NYU Law School says “it was as good a business as any.”
The local Lebanese, Syrian and other Arabic peoples in the area were already familiar with the food that Mamoun would serve. Of course then as now Greenwich Village was a receptive neighborhood full of artists, musicians, and a hodgepodge of different cultures and people adventurous in their food exploration as well as other respects. Though falafel is commonplace these days, back then it was entirely new.
As a Village destination, Galal says everybody goes to Mamoun’s and “everybody in the entire universe should go here.” Rest assured, as the lines often indicate, a lot of people do make the special visit when visting NYC. People want a good meal at 2am or 5pm or noon or anytime. It does not hurt that they are situated between two other world-renowned Village businesses, Comedy Cellar to the south and Caffe Reggio to the north.
Mamoun’s has had the fortune to have been ahead of the numerous food trends over the years just by sticking to what they already do best. All the fads from low carb to Mediterranean Food to Atkins Diet were all covered with a meal from Mamoun’s, even if people would order the falafel sandwich without the pita. Galal remembers growing up at family meals there was always salad and veggies as the centerpiece, even meat was also included.
True to form, the menu and recipes have not really changed at all since opening. As Galal explained, people over the years come to get what they like, what they expect, and, he half-joked, what they demand.
The secret to their success, of course, goes back to his father, Mamoun. “He had a simple philosophy. Make and serve good food that is consistent and be nice.” Galal gets a twinkle in his eye recounting the magnetic hospitality of his father and his special way with people. Mamoun’s approach was that you were not coming to a business but to his home. People have high expectations with the Mamoun name and the family and staff continue to fulfill it.
Just don’t ask about the special spices and herb mix that makes their healthy green falafel so delicious, as it remains a secret. And so is the recipe for the hot sauce that makes a delectable addition on the side to add as you like — all at once or bite by bite. Galal did offer some advice, though: if you have some of that hot sauce left over, take it home. When you saute some olive oil and garlic, add just a tad of the sauce and it will do wonders for the dish.
Thought the local and creative base of the neighborhood remains, it is impossible to overlook the change that NYU has wrought, Galal pointed out. From more sports bars and places dedicated to students rather than long-time locals to a certain level of homogenization, Galal says that is the main difference he has felt over the years
But many Greenwich Village staples abound. Galal of course readily lists of a litany of his local favorites, starting with Shade, the bar where we met on the corner of Sullivan Street. He frequents the Comedy Cellar run by his friend Noam, the Blue Note, Artichoke Pizza, Joe’s Pizza (Galal’s fave), Minetta’s, The Taco Shop, and he had thumbs up for a newcomer, Molly’s Cupcakes, that satisfies his sweet tooth. But maybe not more than the baklava at Mamoun’s.
As a business operating in a landmarked historic district, Galal says he has never had any problems with the city or the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
As another generation of the family runs Mamoun’s. so does the shop host different generations of families over the years. A parent will bring their college-bound children to Mamoun’s, introducing their NYU first-year students to a familiar dish from their own young adulthood. People visit and tell him that his father served them, and now he is serving them, and for Galal there is no better feeling of joy. “That is the kind of feedback you get as a family business that is so fulfilling that you can’t get anywhere else.”
This humble business is now known around the world. So whether you were there last year or last week, Galal says “Keep eating falafel.” With Mamoun’s at 119 MacDougal Street since 1971, and an East Village outpost at 30 St Marks Place, you have no excuse not to enjoy was has become a quintessential taste of New York City.
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And here is a handy map of all of our Businesses of the Month: