The falafel wrap at District Falafel, which opened in Bethesda’s Westlake shopping mall in November, looks terrific, the warm griddled pita bursting with its crunchy namesake chickpea balls, romaine lettuce, tahini, and cucumber, tomato and parsley salad. But it tastes even better, especially when the restaurant’s owner, Mohammad Badah, explains what goes into making it. He learned how in his hometown of Bethlehem in Palestine, where his aunt had a falafel shop. “Growing up, I was always around her. I learned about chickpeas, that it was better to get them from a warm climate than a cold one because it makes it fluffier when you grind it,” he explains. “Cold ones will be smaller and harder when you grind them.” Badah buys Mexican chickpeas from a New Jersey company, washes them several times, soaks them overnight and then grinds them manually four or five times. He seasons them the Palestinian way, with garlic, onions, spices (cumin, coriander, black pepper, salt) and nothing else. The balls are fried in canola oil used only for the falafel. Pita bread comes from a Chicago bakery. The base of his tahini sauce is Egyptian sesame paste made from lightly toasted sesame seeds.
All of this adds up to one delicious falafel, available as a wrap, bowl, platter or salad for $9, $10, $11 and $12, respectively.
Badah, 44, lives in Rockville with his wife and two children, 10 and 13. He came to the DMV in 2006 when, through connections he made working at the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem, he got a job as a cook at Mama Ayesha’s restaurant in Washington. A cooking job at a fast-casual restaurant called Quick Pita followed, then a bartending stint at Sushiko restaurant in Chevy Chase from 2008 to 2014. In 2015, he started a food truck called Holy Moly Hummus and another, called District Falafel, in 2016. Both trucks serviced downtown D.C. office buildings.
COVID decimated the business. “That’s when I decided to invest in the community where I live,” says Badah. “I was 100% sure that in the county, my business would grow more during the pandemic.” He flipped Holy Moly into a burger truck (Bourbon Burger) and took one or the other truck to various swimming pools, schools, wineries and
breweries throughout the county.
Opening a brick-and-mortar place was always Badah’s plan. That came to fruition when, while scouting locations, he stopped in at a Chinese restaurant he liked, Fu Shing Cafe, and found it had closed. Now it’s District Falafel. (He closed the burger truck but uses the District Falafel truck for catering functions.)
The bright, charming 22-seat counter-service restaurant has turquoise walls adorned with large prints of Mediterranean ingredients, such as baskets of spices, figs and olives. The menu also includes excellent dips (baba ghanouj, hummus, muhammara, tzatziki), gyros, chicken shawarma and beef kofta. All meat is halal. A bonus: Badah provides real cutlery and serves his food on pretty, boldly colored porcelain bowls and plates rather than using disposables. Somehow that makes great food taste even better.
District Falafel, 10315 Westlake Drive, Bethesda; 301-767-3300; districtfalafel.com
This story appears in the March/April issue of Bethesda Magazine.