4704 Third St., Detroit, MI
QISA (4.5, 4, 3, 3.5), $4-8, Vegetarian-Friendly
So, there we were, lost in the middle of the Detroit urban jungle, huddling for safety and warmth. My traveling companion and I slept in shifts, hiding under the torn sheet of stained cardboard, trying desperately to ignore the gunshots and screams punctuating the night. For the most part, the locals left us alone, save for the two large, mangy vagrants who accosted us at knifepoint. We distracted one with our last tapioca pudding, the other with a swift kick to the groin.
In the morning, we emerged from our hiding place, blinking into the sunlight. Looking for respite and safety, we stumbled into the first restaurant we could find. I’ll be damned if they didn’t have the best falafel I’ve eaten in years.
Okay, so maybe my discovery of Harmonie Garden was not nearly so frought with excitement and adventure, but our decision to eat there was in fact borne out by happenstance and impulse, not careful planning. I was traveling with my coworker “B,” and we chose the restaurant somewhat randomly. Since I was organizing our meetings in Detroit that day, my reputation was on the line. I was selecting a restaurant with no advanced access to online reviews, Michelin ratings, or menus.
Luckily, the risk matched the reward. Harmonie Garden, a converted bar on the Wayne State campus, is a wonderfully inventive Middle Eastern restaurant. The menu is filled with vegetarian choices, but it is the breadth of falafel dishes that stand out. These include falafel in pita, arabi falafel, fala burger (falafel on a burger bun), fala San Fran, Falamankoush (za’atar pie stuffed with veggies and falafel), Flobby Joe (falaburger with veggie chili and tahini), falafel stir fry, falamelt, and BBQ falafel. Other vegetarian dishes include Mujadara (lentils and bulgher served with crispy onions), Za’atar Pie (savory pastry coated with za’atar spice, and filled with veggies and Syrian cheese), vegetarian grape leaves, and Mujadara spinach melt (onions, lentils, spinach, melted cheese, hummus, and tahini).
B was as big a fan of Middle Eastern food as I was, so we settled in for a major lunch feast. I started with a cup of crushed lentil soup. The soup was not overly salty or spicy, but it sported an appropriate level of umami flavor and hearty mouth feel.
B ordered a plate of hummus and pita, which she thankfully shared with me so I didn’t have to make whimpering puppy dog eyes at her. The pita bread came wrapped in plastic, and was thin but very soft. The plate of hummus was decorated with olive oil, spices, tomatoes, and pickles. I am not engaging in hyperbole when I say it was possibly the best hummus I’ve ever eaten, and this from a man who makes his own hummus at home.
We shared an order of veggie and cheese samosas. I enjoyed the veggie samosas; they tasted like a slightly blander version of traditional Indian samosas. The cheese samosas tasted like mini calzones. Although they were good, very good in fact, the Italian and Indian flavors seemed incongruous with the rest of the meal.
I ordered the arabi falafel, which was a grilled falafel sandwich on pita bread, stuffed with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, and hummus. The plate included four sandwiches, each about three to five inches across. The falafel were spiced, fried, and shaped perfectly, with the absolute right consistency inside and out. Needless to say, I was in my happy place.
The prices at Harmonie Garden are incredibly reasonable, with most sandwich plates ranging from $4 to $8. One can eat very cheaply there and still take home plenty for lunch the next day. Or for breakfast. I don’t judge.
Most importantly, B was impressed with my choice of restaurant. After two days of me setting up meetings with doctors, organizing travel, and waxing poetic on the finer points of clinical trial design, my high risk, high reward lunch spot was simply the pièce de resistance.
I suppose fending off a vagrant with a swift kick and a tapioca cup didn’t hurt either.