Find fantastic falafel at Banzo in Madison

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By Bill Livick, Special to the Gazette
Thursday, July 31, 2014

MADISON-There are certain foods that, once appreciated, are never forgotten. And some of the most memorable are also some of the least complicated to prepare-like a great sandwich.

One that stands out for me is falafel-a deep-fried ball or patty made from ground chickpeas (and sometimes fava beans) that's best served in a fresh pita with pickled vegetables and yogurt- or tahini-based sauces.

Falafel originated in the Middle East (which is where I discovered it 30 years ago) but didn't make its way to North America until the 1970s-and then typically in Jewish neighborhoods in places such as New York City.

The first such restaurant that I encountered in Madison was King of Falafel. It opened near the UW-Madison campus around 2005 and went out of business after five or six years.

Of course, other Mediterranean and Middle Eastern restaurants here offer falafel as an option. But usually the food comes off as a second thought and is disappointing.

Three years ago a food cart called Banzo appeared on the Library Mall. Later a second appeared on Capitol Square, both specializing in falafel. After a year, the owners opened an actual brick and mortar restaurant of the same name on North Sherman Avenue. It's been a popular spot for those in-the-know ever since.

The restaurant has several things going for it. First, it's cornered the local market on a healthy and delicious food. Second is Banzo's clear and simple approach: offer seven main options, available in four distinct preparations, with just a few sides. Third, it prepares the food expertly and affordably. Lastly, it has a relaxed atmosphere, with friendly people running it.

The restaurant is located in what appears to have been a private residence. It has main floor dining, a dining room on the second floor, and also a large deck in front that faces west, toward a park. That's where most people chose to dine when we visited Banzo last week.

Fresh falafel has a lot going for it. Although it's deep-fried, the exterior of well-done falafel is not greasy. Inside, the substance is moist, a bit spicy (from garlic, cumin, coriander, cayenne, parsley and cilantro) and cake-like.

So what you have is crispy, nutty chickpea flour enhanced with crunchy vegetables-chopped pickle, cucumber and lettuce-and served with a choice of three sauces: tahini, yogurt or hot chili.

Banzo's falafel is served in a fluffy, light pita that's made in Jerusalem and shipped to Madison via Chicago.

There are two steps to ordering your meal. First, pick out what you want. Then decide how you want it.

The kitchen's main options: the Banzo classic falafel (four balls), the chick (char-grilled chicken tenderloin), grilled beef kebabs, two falafel balls with slices of seared eggplant, a breaded fried chicken breast, two falafel balls with a choice of grilled chicken or kebabs, or thinly shaved brisket, with horseradish slaw.

Any of those options can be served as a pita sandwich; on a platter with majadra rice, hummus, a chopped salad and pita on the side; on a plate over hummus with tahini, parsley, olive oil and pita; or as a salad over a bed of mixed greens and topped with a chopped salad, olives and chickpeas.

The kitchen also turns out some excellent sides, including lentil soup and a soup of the day, couscous tabouli, baba ganoush (roasted eggplant spread with pita), hummus, hand-cut fries, chopped salads and rice.

A good selection of craft beers in bottles is available.

My friends, Victoria and Mark, and I chose the pita sandwich as a vehicle for our falafel. The Harvest ($7.70) combined two falafel balls with slices of eggplant and fresh greens. Victoria poured on the hot sauce and tahini and dug in.

It should be noted that a falafel sandwich can be unwieldy to eat and requires plenty of napkins-but each bite justifies the effort.

A few minutes into his meal, Mark declared the schnitzel ($8.95)-a breaded and seasoned fried chicken breast-as the best sandwich in Madison. (He was so emphatic that I vowed to make it my next meal when I'm on the city's north side.)

I opted for the Banzo classic ($6.60) and marveled at the perfect balance of textures and flavor.

A bowl of Thai green curry soup ($4.95), served cold, made for a fine side, as did the parsley-heavy tabouli ($3.95). The only disappointment was an order of baba ganoush ($3.95), which came off as vaguely bland.

For dessert, there is a fine baklava and, on the day of our visit, a tasty mango-pineapple upside down cake.

If you've never tasted a falafel sandwich, there's no better place in the state to have your first bite than at Banzo.

If you're not fond of chickpeas and tahini, the kitchen's schnitzel and beef brisket sandwiches still make the drive worth the effort.

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