Sometimes, you cannot conceive of how much love can be cooked into a falafel. Many falafel are sad, desiccated creatures made from powdered mix; it's the rare place that makes falafel from fresh ingredients. But Habayit Restaurant's falafel are beyond even that.
The falafel are tiny little things, and they have a tendency to vanish just before you've figure out exactly what makes them quite so amazingly good. Take a bite and look inside: There isn't the dry sponge-like texture of reconstituted powdered garbanzo; there is, instead, all kinds of little chunks of things — beans, vegetables, herbs. They are weirdly a lot like fresh macaroons, crisp on the outside and soft and lush on the inside: crunchy little balls of earthy pudding.
Habayit Restaurant is a tiny Israeli restaurant, almost invisible in the corner of an aggressively nondescript West L.A. strip mall — a lone kosher satellite drifting miles away from the core Jewish neighborhoods to the east. Owned and staffed solely by a husband-and-wife team — Amir and Pnina Simyonov — the place sees a constant stream of locals, a lot of them popping by to pick up large, family-sized takeout orders. Amir Simyonov seems to already know most of the people who roll through, and sometimes cheerfully scolds people for showing up later than usual.
Every meal starts with hot pita bread and a little bowl of fresh schug, a cheerfully bright-green homemade sauce made from serrano chiles, cilantro, garlic and olive oil. The sauce is a microcosm of the meal to come: lively, fresh and probably just a little more brightly aggressive than you might have expected. If your Hebrew isn't good, you can amuse the proprietors by failing to pronounce the name correctly. If you do it with enough fervor, they might bring you a little extra schug, which is worth the self-abasement.
The cooking here is utterly specific; each dish tastes so distinctly of its particular ingredients. Taste, for example, the gorgeous baba ghannouj, full of the clear taste of roasted eggplant and the beautifully bitter bite of fresh ground sesame. Take the hot Turkish salad, with all sorts of very fresh, very crisp tiny vegetable bitties in a chilled-out sweet, slightly zippy tomato sauce. The meatball plate seems plain at first — just large balls in a tiny bit of pale meatball juice — but they turn out to be the happiest sort of country-style, grandma-style packets of softness and savor.
Even their pickles are worth contemplating. A little complimentary plate of homemade pickles comes with each meal, and it's full of surprising little tidbits. There's little cubes of intense pickled beets; wonderful cabbage pickles that taste like the children of a normal cabbage that started a punk band; and celery pickles with their precise, crispy, luscious celery flavor.
The shishlik — chicken kebab — is as devoted to the unadulterated taste of chicken as a good sushi chef is to the taste of tuna belly. So, in a slightly more homely breaded and fried way, is the chicken schnitzel. So too are the heavily herbed ground beef kebabs, and the peppery, intensely, sweetly gamey lamb chops. They're like Middle Eastern haikus of meat.
Food this simple is often easy to do decently but hard to make sensational. Tell the owners how much you love the place, and you might catch this half-amused, half-knowing smirk: They know how far beyond most other falafel and kebab joints they are, and they probably almost pity you for missing out on it until now.
LOCATION: 11921 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 479-7173
PRICE: Appetizers, $4 to $11; sandwiches, $6 to $10; entrees, $10 to $25
DETAILS: Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sundays to Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Fridays. Closed Saturdays. Coffee, soda and fresh-squeezed juice. Credit cards accepted. Lot parking.