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By Michael White
Did you know the exact origin of falafel has proven impossible to determine? I didn’t until I sat down to write this review.
What historians do know (unless they don’t) is that over 130 years ago, one or more clever individuals (likely Egyptian, unless they weren’t) lit upon the idea of mashing together fava beans with herbs and spices, forming the resultant paste into balls, and frying them until they became crisp and golden brown. Word of this culinary innovation — delicious, nutritious, simple and economical — spread throughout the Middle East, and various populations adapted the recipe to suit whatever legume was at hand, most prominently chickpeas.
Flash forward to today, when a minimum-wage Pita Pit employee dispassionately passes to a hungry but perhaps equally dispassionate customer a sandwich containing a handful of angrily hard falafel pucks that arrived in a freezer bag and were reheated in the microwave.
All cuisines are born of environment, ingenuity and love. And all cuisines are destined to eventually become a product of cold-blooded opportunism, their constituent parts debased until we bite into something we implicitly understand is supposed to be delicious yet can no longer recall why. Middle Eastern cuisine is among the most intensely flavourful and aromatic on Earth, and here in Vancouver there are some places — Nuba, Aleph and Jamjar among them — that properly honour it. But there are a great many more who seem to not be disrespecting it so much as seeking revenge upon it: dry, bland shawarma meat; dry, bland falafel balls; pita bread from the supermarket (dry and bland also, of course); vegetables left to wither and fade behind the glass of a warm display case. Kley and I almost broke up in the annoyed, bloated-yet-still-hungry aftermath of a takeout meal from one such establishment near English Bay. (Seriously: fuck that joint.)
But now Vancouver has Superbaba and, save for matters of convenience (as yet, the city has only one location, at Main and Broadway, and delivery isn’t an option), we have no acceptable reason to settle for bad Middle Eastern food here again.
Superbaba is the brainchild of various people whose success is built upon laser-focused attention to detail: Robbie Kane, whose Café Medina forever elevated Vancouver’s expectations of brunch; the principals behind Tacofino, which began as a food truck and is now a city-straddling empire; and chef Abdallah El Chami, who developed a reputation for transcendent West Coast-inspired Lebanese dishes at various pop-up dinners.
Merely glancing over its menu, one wouldn’t necessarily expect there to be anything that sets Superbaba apart from scores of other shawarma-and-falafel takeout spots. (The restaurant space was designed to accommodate dine-in seating as well, but then COVID, etc., etc….) A list of both wraps ($9.95-$12.70) and bowls ($11.25-$13.95) offers identical options between them: chicken, steak, falafel, or sabich (battered and fried eggplant — which, admittedly, is far from common). But El Chami has brought the keen imagination and first-rate ingredients that fired his pop-ups to everything served here. Meats are beautifully seasoned, and imbued with the crunch and smoke that only come from proper grilling (mercifully, the chicken is flavourful thigh only). The interiors of the falafel are stunningly green and herbaceous, thanks to plenty of parsley and cilantro, and they’re never dropped into the fryer until your order is called. Sabich, whether in a bowl or a wrap, is simply gastronomic nirvana: Japanese eggplant encased in a proprietary tempura batter that renders the humble tuber an object of intense craving. Dip it in the accompanying cup of tahini and zhug (a Yemenite cilantro-based hot sauce) and curse yourself for not having ordered an additional four-piece side ($5).
There are grace notes of care, inventiveness and generosity everywhere, from the fries — fries! — tucked into the chicken and steak wraps, to pitas baked in house, to the perfect six-minute egg (its circumference rendered pink from the same brine used to make their pickled radish) and three harmonious sauces that top the sabich bowl. As for the halva-cornflake cookie ($3.15): package and sell these at 7-Eleven, please.
It must be noted that while Superbaba’s prices are, at most, a few dollars higher than their menu counterparts at a typical Middle Eastern spot, the quality here is incomparable and portions are beyond generous — we had leftovers of everything and we’re by no means restrained eaters.
The first Superbaba opened in Victoria in 2017, and I’d like to think its Vancouver debut points toward ongoing expansion. Café Medina is testament to Kane’s ability to amass a crew that can knock out hundreds of plates daily with stunning consistency, while Tacofino is a model for duplicating (and subtly tweaking) a successful formula across multiple locations. Between those forces and El Chami’s creativity, Superbaba could set a new standard for Middle Eastern food at a chain level. It would be no less than what this much-loved but oft-mistreated cuisine has long deserved. In the meantime, I’ll happily go out of my way, again and again, for more of this.
(Photo: Kley Klemens)