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Holy Falafel! 

Israeli food in an unlikely setting

It pays to keep your eyes open.

One Friday afternoon my family and I were headed down Fillmore for I-25 and a trip to Denver. Since my husband was driving, I had a chance to watch the scenery go by. You just never know where an interesting little restaurant, thrift shop or used bookstore is going to pop up in a strip mall. So as we crossed Virginia Avenue, I yelled "Hey!" and pointed.

The first lesson I learned is not to point and yell when someone else is driving. The second lesson is that you, beloved, reader, need to eat at Tel Aviv Caf.

Tucked away a scant block north of Fillmore, the Tel Aviv Caf is a small mom-and-pop establishment nestled next to the First Draft Choice (Beer, Billiards and Boogie, according to the sign out front). But don't let the location slow you down. This little restaurant offers a flavor experience unique to Colorado Springs.

Hesitant about trying Israeli food? Rest assured you can get giant, plump, juicy kosher hot dogs on a poppy seed-speckled bun or a tuna salad sandwich on pita bread. But you won't be disappointed if you venture further into the small menu.

The spanakopita ($3.95) is a wedge of flaky, crispy phyllo pastry holding a sumptuous, hearty filling of fresh, fresh spinach and cheese. Other appetizers are $2.55. The hummus has a marvelous texture, not creamy from being over-processed, with a few whole garbanzo beans for added interest. The mixture is wonderfully and lightly seasoned with hints of lemon and garlic, not too overpowering. Try Crushed Eggplant with Tahina, where the smooth, rich roasted eggplant is tamed and fused with tahina (sesame seed butter) and sparkles with the accent of fresh lemon. The Turkish Salad was completely new to me. It combines simmered crushed tomatoes with bell peppers and sliced garlic. I dipped pita bread in it. I smeared in on my falafel. I think it would make an outstanding pizza sauce; I could eat it on toast. The possibilities are endless.

The stuffed grape leaves are delicious, and you can get them hot or cold. My new favorite (can't wait to try making it this summer with fresh veggies from the farmers markets) is the Israeli Salad -- a simple combination of chopped cucumbers, tomatoes and bell peppers. I had to ask about the bright, tangy flavor, and I was rewarded with the secret: the vegetables are dressed simply with fresh lemon juice and fresh garlic. It's so much less harsh than a similar salad would be, made with vinegar.

What about the main events? Besides the hot dogs and tuna salad, you can get a falafel ($4.55) or Sharwarma (gyros, $4.95) sandwich, both of which are gigantic sandwiches stuffed into fresh, warm pita bread. For those new to falafels, think of a vegetarian meatball. Now up the flavor by 100 percent, and you've got a falafel. Made of chickpeas, ground together with onion, garlic, cumin, lemon, parsley and other spices, small balls or patties are hand-shaped and then quickly fried, so they have a crunchy, golden outer crust. These are packed into pita bread along with Israeli Salad, and the dish comes with a side of hummus, which I highly advise you to slather on with wild abandon. The gyro is a combination of very flavorful, garlicky grilled lamb and beef, almost overflowing the pita along with sliced tomatoes and lettuce. This comes with a thick, tangy, yogurt-based sauce on the side, a perfect complement.

You can also get one of three dinner specialties, all of which are incredibly priced at $6.95. Israeli Meatballs are moist and flavorful, with a hint of cinnamon in the bell pepper-infused tomato sauce. You get an enormous portion over perfectly cooked orzo with a side of Israeli Salad and hummus. The Combo Plate, similarly big, holds dolmas, hummus, spanakopita, some falafel balls, Israeli Salad and a pile of chicken strips mingled with the grilled beef and lamb used in the gyros -- plus warm pita bread, of course. And the Mixed Jerusalem is a meat-eater's dream, a heavenly pile of that warm gyro meat, plus the tenderest, juiciest chicken you've ever had, mixed with spices and olive oil, served over orzo with a side of hummus.

I heard the owner say the baklava was the only thing she didn't make on the premises. It's still good, crispy and nutty without being too intensely sweet. But the owner does make what she simply calls a the puff pastry dessert, and it was so good it had my daughters licking their plates clean. Simple as can be, puff pastry is filled with a rich but not-too-sweet, thick cream filling, and topped simply with a dusting of powdered sugar.

A small restaurant with food this good deserves the community's support, or else it, and others of its kind, will disappear from the Springs, leaving us with a wasteland of chain restaurants and boring, mass-produced menus. Venture off the beaten path and visit Tel Aviv Cafe soon. You'll be glad you did.

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