The Restaurant Guide: MIDWAY -- fast food, Foxy Falafel-style

RICK NELSON | Updated 10/4/2012

A popular falafel stand evolves into a quick-serve restaurant.

FAST FOOD, FOXY STYLE

Foxy Falafel

$ • 791 Raymond Av., St. Paul • 651-243-0813

The big surprise of this election season: Why hasn't some enterprising campaign latched onto Erica Strait's quintessentially American success story and exploited it for political gain?

It's a compelling tale: South Dakota farm kid heads to New York City and enrolls in both culinary and nutrition school, then earns her cooking chops in a string of high-profile Manhattan kitchens.

Strait relocates to Minneapolis, where she finds herself craving falafel. Unfortunately, nothing she encounters comes close to the meticulously crafted falafel that are a hallmark of her mentor, Israeli-American chef Einat Admony.

"So I called her and said, 'I want to make falafel in Minneapolis, are you cool with that?'" recalls Strait. "And Einat gave me the falafel blessing."

That was three years ago. Foxy Falafel began quietly at a farmers market and quickly attracted some major word of mouth. Foxy now boasts seven employees and a dramatically expanded platform that includes a food truck and a counter-service restaurant. The latter debuted in August, simmering with Strait's enthusiastically flavored, holistic-minded cooking. Yep, fast food has taken an ambitious leap forward.

The excellence naturally starts with hand-formed falafel, balls of mashed organic chickpeas and garden-fresh herbs that are carefully fried in canola oil until the bite-size croquettes turn gently crisp and tantalizingly brown on the outside, rich and creamy on the inside. They are superb, and Strait uses them as the basis of an overstuffed pita sandwich, as the centerpiece in an abundant salad and as the starring attraction on a snack plate.

The straight-up version is plenty appealing, particularly when a half-dozen of them are stuffed into a hummus-swiped pita brimming with tomatoes, crunchy cucumbers and lightly seasoned cabbage. A trio of sauces provide a finishing flourish: a cool cucumber- and mint-enhanced yogurt, a zesty lemon-boosted tahini and a thick, assertive harissa. The multi-dimensional blend of nuanced textures, flavors and temperatures is remarkable, particularly given the $7 price tag.

Still, the curry falafel -- humming with turmeric, cumin and cardamom flavor notes -- is even better, although it just might be topped by the even more creative beet rendition.

Rather than a traditional gyro, Strait approximates its most mouth-watering attributes with a technique that yields grade-A results. Chicken is roasted with onions, garlic and tons of pepper. The meat is sliced thin and seared on the stove until it accumulates bits of caramelized tastiness, then is abundantly stacked inside a cabbage-dressed pita. Strait's version of shawarma invokes turkey breasts marinated overnight in coriander, cayenne, turmeric and garlic, then sliced thin and seared on the stove. Each big, sloppy bite pretty much says, "This is how you do quick-service food."

Two thumbs way up for the supple and teasingly smoky baba ghanoush. Oh, and the lamb burger? Its paprika and roasted red pepper accents only enhance its well-seasoned qualities.

Autumn's approach is being heralded by the arrival of soups, and if the sweet/hot tones of a Thai-inspired broth are an accurate preview of coming attractions, Foxy fans are going to be kept warm all winter. Another planned addition is a single daily dinner entree, priced around $15.

The small-scale setting -- with its casual, pop-up vibe -- reflects Strait's warm, outgoing personality. There's a short and inexpensive beer and wine selection. Happy hour (3 to 6 p.m. weekdays) is an ideal time for a Foxy initiation, when 25 cents buys a single falafel ball. "Other people do 25-cent chicken wings, I do 25-cent falafel balls," Strait said with a laugh. "You can try all three flavors, and spend less than a dollar." Sign me up.

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Tai Hoa B.B.Q.: Asian. Chinese and Vietnamese-style barbecued and roast pork, chicken and duck, sold by the pound. What sets Tai Hoa apart is its other prepared foods, which include chicken-feet salad, pig-ear salad and several dishes that combine Asian vegetables with pig intestines and other parts of the pig anatomy. There are a few tables, but most of the business is carry-out. (854 W. University Av., St. Paul, 651-298-8480)

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