It took more than a few bites of my chicken kabob at Viva Falafel for me to realize that perhaps there was no actual chicken in my chicken kabob. Adding to my confusion — the turmeric-sprinkled hunks had the fleshy texture of white breast meat — was the fact that I had very clearly witnessed a man in a black chef cap emerge from the prep room in the back with my dish’s main marinated protein affixed around a flat stainless steel skewer, which he threw atop a flaming grill in an open kitchen adjacent to the dining area and flipped several times before de-skewering atop a bed of pillowy Persian rice.
I considered this move as I chewed another bite, trying to reconcile what I saw previously with what I was eating. Despite all appearances, something was definitely off. The mouthfeel was a little too light to be chicken; the product melted on the tongue too easily, without much need for chewing.
Finally, I glanced back at the menu that hangs above the fast-food-like counter at this two-month-old restaurant, scanning for quotation marks around the words “chicken” or “beef” that would alert carnivores like myself that no animals were harmed in the making of these meals. Along the top of the fluorescent green sign (in contrasting black letters, though easily missed), it read “Organic & Vegan” — the only time this Middle Eastern food experiment gives a clue about its animal-free ethos.
Soon, the out-of-place purple, orange and green walls came into focus. The Mayan wood carvings newly hung around the former Belmont Burgers location began to make sense. Looking out the window and across the street at the crowded Grain Cafe, it clicked: Viva Falafel is a Mediterranean take on the creative organic, vegan cuisine that made the Oaxacan-owned Grain Cafe (with its original location in L.A.’s Mid-City) so popular.
This time, though, instead of macrobiotic-leaning abuelitas, there must be a vegan Persian maman in the kitchen because Viva Falafel’s greatest contribution to The Grain Cafe brand are not its mock meats (the wheat-and-soy substitute that serves as kabob chicken and beef can also be found on the Grain Cafe menu), but its polos, those herb-studded Iranian pilafs filled with everything from lima beans to barberries.
Every kebob plate comes with a side of blistered vegetables, a scoop of chunky fattoush salad and your choice from four different kinds of these polos, some of which have been retooled to eliminate any meat or dairy products. A sweet zereshk polo skips the thick Greek yogurt. The traditionally beef-laden lubia polo doesn’t touch the meat stock, but keeps its savory flavor by loading up on the tomatoes and green beans that have always set it apart. Two polos — the herby baghali rice (with dill and lima beans) and an adas polo (raisins and dates) — are already made vegan.
For all the impressive mock meat and Persian rices at Viva Falafel, the one thing that falls short is its namesake dish, which can’t come close to beating HipPea’s perfectly crisp chickpea balls (or their steamed pita bread supplier). One perk to the falafel, though: it’s guaranteed not to confuse kabob-ordering meat-eaters, many of whom leave the restaurant without ever bothering to read the menu-board disclaimer.
4400 E. 4th St., Long Beach; (562)588-9292; vivafalafelonline.co
Sarah Bennett is a freelance journalist who has spent nearly a decade covering food, music, craft beer, arts, culture and all sorts of bizarro things that interest her for local, regional and national publications.