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Falafelove Blooms in King Salmon



A low chalkboard sign with the words "falafel" and "open" is the only warning before you miss the turn into the recently opened Falafelove's little parking lot in King Salmon (1125 King Salmon Ave.). Inside, with jars of preserved lemons and olives overhead, owner Avi Leibson hustles between a fryer basket of browned falafel and a pan of hot chicken.

When he first opened the shop, Leibson says, "It seemed like people who knew what falafel was didn't know where King Salmon was and people who knew where King Salmon was didn't know what falafel was." But he was undaunted. "People were like, 'What's fa-lufa,'" to which he'd respond, "Got two minutes? I'll fry you one up fresh." In just a month, Falafelove has managed to draw fans of Mediterranean food and curious newbies alike to the out-of-the-way location.

"It's the food I grew up eating," says Leibson, who was raised on his Moroccan mother's cooking and describes his family as having Mediterranean roots. The Moroccan fish on Falafelove's menu ($16.99) is a dish his family ate on Fridays for Shabbat dinner. Here, he makes it with local rockfish poached in tomatoes, peppers and garlic, but the flavor profile is close to what he recalls his mother making. "I got knife skills from dad and spice skills from mom," he says. Both have come in handy, sometimes in unexpected settings.

Leibson says he started working in restaurants as a teen, first washing dishes and eventually as a line cook. He says he kept cooking while in the U.S. Navy and afterward, when he came to Humboldt. "I came out here for the Green Rush, working for weed farms," he says, adding he would find himself in the position of "trim mom," making meals on site when it came out he could cook. As the cannabis market took a dive, he says he headed to Alaska for commercial fishing work. At sea, he once again ended up cooking for the crew.

After years of friends asking when he'd open his own place, Leibson made a stab at a food truck but says the hunt for a commercial kitchen was going nowhere. Coming across the King Salmon location made a brick-and-mortar restaurant seem possible. He says he feels anchored, happy to finally be cooking in his own place and enamored of the neighborhood. "I wanna stay here as long as I can stand on my feet and make good food," he says. "I'm blown away because I don't have any traditional culinary training. ... I'm stoked, dude."

The namesake falafel have thin crusts that break open to reveal a verdant blend of parsley, cilantro, chickpeas, onion, jalapeño, sesame, cumin, coriander and garlic. The wrapped version ($11.99) comes with four of 10 sides, ranging from lemony beets to green schug with a little bite and onions quickly pickled with sumac and fresh mint, all tucked in a soft flour tortilla. (Listen, it works and if you need proof of the success of Mediterranean-Mexican collaboration, please refer to the Lebanese immigrants who brought vertical rotisseries to Mexico, eventually yielding tacos al pastor and generally improving the world.)

Further evidence among the sides is the Medi Pico, finely chopped cucumber, tomatoes, peppers and onions in a light Mediterranean-style dressing. The babaganoush comes by its rich smokiness honestly, fire roasted and rested overnight before it's hand-whipped with tahini, lemon juice, olive oil and salt. Tamar's Spicy Carrots are a recipe from Leibson's friend Tamar Armstrong Krigel, and pair a touch of heat with nutty sweetness. "Her cooking is far superior to mine," he says.

The malabi ($4.50), a milk pudding scented with rosewater, topped with a float of fuschia hibiscus syrup and a dusting of coconut and chopped pistachio, is a rare treat locally. Dating back to ancient Persia, it also makes the case for pudding as romantic. (Farewell lava cakes, we're back to wooing with pudding.)

Leibson outfitted the kitchen with second-hand appliances, and the little dining room has had a DIY makeover with wood paneling, plants and thrifted décor, courtesy of "scrappy" manager Tony Dontchev. Once the starter home of Sammy's BBQ, the back patio catches the sun and overlooks a little waterway (comparisons to Venice speak more to local generosity than architecture). For now, Falafelove is a two-person operation open Friday through Sunday, with Liebson scratch making "everything except for the wraps." But there are plans to add Thursdays soon.

"I'm in King Salmon and I have low overhead ... it's a really great spot," Leibson says. He's hopeful the setup will allow him to keep prices where they are and not sacrifice homemade touches. "I feel like I can hook up people if they're willing to come out here," he says.

Leibson says he's mostly excited to share his food and his love of these flavors with people, hence the name Falafelove. "It isn't called 'Falafel-get-rich."

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at (707) 442-1400, extension 320, or [email protected]. Follow her on Instagram @JFumikoCahill.

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