The first time I had Mamoun’s falafel, I was a newly minted college grad with rarely more than $10 in my pocket. One evening, a friend guided me down Macdougal Street in Greenwich Village to a minuscule storefront with a striped awning. Mamoun’s — named for its founder, a Syrian immigrant named Mamoun Chater — was New York City’s first and most famous falafel place; I went for the standard initiation: A pita sandwich stuffed with deep-fried orbs of mashed chickpeas, a mop of lettuce, some pale tomatoes and a slather of tahini. It was crisp and hot and messy, a perfect size and easy price (somewhere between $4 and $5).
Turns out that in the early 1990s, Imran Lakhani, then a law student at NYU, also was hitting up Mamoun’s. Lakhani would go on to own food franchises in New York City; Mamoun’s, in turn, began expanding in 2011, at the tender age of 40, with locations in New Jersey and Connecticut.
A franchise deal earlier this year turbocharged that growth. Lakhani and his wife, Pinaz, came full circle in a way, buying the rights to Long Island franchises. They opened Long Island’s first Mamoun’s in early July in Syosset.
Where the original Mamoun’s felt charmingly rough around the edges, this one is all rustic polish — sort of warehouse-meets-farmhouse, with counter ordering and a bright dining room of thick, wooden tables. Rather than a snaking line out front, diners instead need to navigate a tight parking lot, where finding a spot feels like a hard-won accomplishment. But Mamoun’s polished spin on Middle Eastern fast food is worth the trouble.
Upon close inspection, you’ll notice that Mamoun’s menu combines a few basic components — pita, falafel, shawarma, kebabs, dips, rice and salad — in various ways, from sandwiches to platters. The rough ingredients and spices arrive a few times each week from a New Jersey commissary and are blended, cooked and sometimes reheated here. “Fast food” is a slight misnomer — there can be a lag from the time you order at the counter until your number is called. As you wait, try nursing some of the tart mint lemonade or more distinctive tamarind juice.
Newbies to Mamoun’s could start with the main event: Balls of falafel generously herbed with parsley until their innards are tinged green. They’re at their best in the “classic” sandwich, smeared with tahini and garlicky hummus, along with a tangle of onions, iceberg lettuce and hothouse tomatoes. Those accoutrements can distract from the falafel’s uneven presentation — mushy and under-fried one visit, almost crisped to a char on another.
Despite Mamoun’s namesake dish, two items stand a head above: The first is shawarma, or slow-cooked lamb reheated on a vertical rotisserie and shaved into succulent flaps breathing cumin, pepper and maybe even clove (Mamoun’s spice blends are proprietary). On one of Mamoun’s plates, the meat finds happy matrimony with cardamom-scented rice; these plates also come garnished with pickled turnips and olives for pops of crunch and brine.
Mamoun’s shish (lamb) and chicken kebabs are saturated with juices and spices, and voluptuous; however, the kofte kebab — ground beef and lamb patties threaded with herbs — has a spongy texture that can be slightly off-putting.
As befits a history feeding decades of late-night Greenwich Village carousers, Mamoun’s fries are consummate, dusted with spices and shattering at each bite; go for the aioli-like garlic sauce, but tread carefully with Mamoun’s seething hot sauce. A few dots can set your mouth afire.
Mamoun’s offers three similar but subtly different desserts, and if you have to choose just one, the Lebanese dessert knafeh is where it’s at — sticky, buttery squares of shredded phyllo dough layered with ground pistachios that taste like you’d imagine fried honeycomb might.