The first time I tasted falafel, I was in Israel and working as a volunteer on an Israeli tank-repair base in the middle of the Negev Desert. In between tinkering on air filters and reupholstering tank seats, my military diet consisted of hard-boiled eggs and tomato-cucumber salad washed down by cups of steaming sweet tea. But on weekends, I made my way to Tel Aviv, where I stuffed myself silly on Israeli street food and feasted on falafel. The fried green balls were at their best when buried deep down in a piece of pita, slathered with tzatziki, and augmented by tomatoes, cabbage, potatoes, parsley, and pickles.
When a friend told me that Cilantro, a Middle Eastern eatery, had opened in Owings Mills (by three Israelis, no less), I was eager to visit, though the name suggests Mexico more than the Mediterranean. Bad branding aside, the fare, it turns out, is delicious.
Cilantro's falafel—well-seasoned and stained green from ample doses of cilantro—is the best I've had in years. Here, it's served in a lafa (Israeli bread) wrap or in a bowl, and comes in a number of flavor combinations, including white bean and rosemary ($6.95), spicy ($6.95), and smoked roasted red pepper ($6.95). I ordered the spicy version—delicious without activating your pain receptors. The falafel (as well as other menu items) comes with a dozen or so add-ons to customize your meal (think Chipotle as you move down the line), including couscous, tomato-cucumber salad, baba ghanoush, pickles, sauerkraut, and tabbouleh, plus a variety of sauces, including a tangy tahini and garlic sauce.
My favorite building blocks included a thick hummus and salty slices of fried eggplant. The couscous and the tabbouleh, however, tasted like they'd spent too much time on the steam table, so eyeball them before ordering. If you're not a falafel fan, there are other entrees to consider. The chicken shwarma ($7.95), carved straight from the spit, has an excellent char and is incredibly juicy and flavorful. To get in some greens, I ordered mine on top of a Greek salad ($7.94). Lamb kabobs ($10.95) and kefta kabobs ($8.95) at nearby tables also looked promising. Traditional house-made desserts, including an authentic baklava ($2.45), are there to tempt, too.
The Holy Land graces New Town. Who knew?
›› Cilantro, 9351 Lakeside Blvd., Owings Mills, 410-413-6596. Hours: Sun.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Prices: wraps and platters: $4.95-10.95; desserts: $2.45.