Even in a city as robust as Los Angeles, where Lebanese, Syrian, Israeli, Iranian, and Armenian restaurants count in the hundreds, it’s still easy to get surprised by a simple falafel sometimes. Manaf Alsudaney is the owner of Falafel Chee, a walk-up stand inside of West LA International Market at 10817 Venice Boulevard near Culver City, and on weekends he sells just one thing: warm, airy, crispy Iraqi falafel, either by the piece or wrapped in thin, open Lebanese pita bread. At $3.50 per sandwich, it’s not only one of the best dishes you can eat in greater LA right now, it’s one of the best deals, too.
But as with most food stories, the meal itself is just the jumping-off point.
For starters, Alsudaney only works on Saturday and Sunday because he has a whole other gig during the week: He’s a doctor. The clinical research coordinator has worked at Cedars-Sinai for more than two years, but he keeps a deep history with the falafel he loves. In multiple discussions with Alsudaney, he alternatively describes himself as an artist, a chef, a storyteller, and an MD, with a background that starts in Iraq and runs through Detroit, Michigan. He’s a talker, with a hell of a story to share, and that fits the stand just fine, because after you eat your first sandwich, you’ll probably go right back in for another chat and another round of falafel.
Born in Iraq, Alsudaney earned his degree at the Baghdad School of Medicine. While there, he used his command of the English language to work as a U.S. Army translator, helping with medical needs at hospitals and in the field. The plan was always to parlay that into a United States green card, Alsudaney says, which is how he ended up in Dearborn, Michigan, with its large Iraqi expat population, in 2009.
Within a year, Alsudaney was building a bakery in Detroit with $50,000 he had borrowed from his brother. “I used to eat with the Army officers,” Alsudaney says over the phone, “and they liked shawarma and these other things, but I would take them for falafel.” Emboldened by the enthusiasm he found with American servicemen for the pared-down regional falafel style, and pushed by his own passions to simply create, Alsudaney worked to open a place of his own that focused on those hometown techniques and flourishes, including Iraqi samoon breads baked in a brick oven. A disaster with the oven build ensued, and just like that his get-started-in-America money, his brother’s life savings, was gone. “It was a very sad day for me,” he says.
Eventually, Alsudaney was able to turn his business around, making Naba Brick Oven Bakery a formidable name in the competitive market around Detroit, before departing to Southern California in 2017. “I used to go to Arabic markets in Orange County,” says Alsudaney, “They have this kind of restaurant within the international markets. It came to my mind: why not open a space in one of them?” As in Michigan, the young Iraqi immigrant felt compelled not just to “stick with medicine,” at his parents request, but to create a company, with his own hands, to be proud of.
It’s easier to understand Alsudaney’s motivations once you’ve tried Falafel Chee. Unlike, say, Palestinian or Israeli falafel, which (broadly speaking) often contains greens and different spices, his is a strictly garbanzo bean mix, crushed and smoothed by hand only. “You’re subtracting,” says Alsudaney. “Sometimes people think the more you add the better taste will come. I’m making the original, crispy and pure in taste and smell. When you eat something crispy and fluffy and easy to chew, that’s when the fun comes in.”
After an attempted launch in Orange County, Alsudaney moved to Culver City and landed at the West LA International Market, but not before building a business plan and tracking down the owner first. “I told him ‘Your market brings at least 1,100 people per day,” he says of his time convincing the market’s owner. “They are all free advertising. Once people enter your market and smell, they will see the product and love it.” His first week in business came right after Thanksgiving.
The stand itself is tiny, barely more than one person wide and tucked next to the produce bins, but it’s enough for him and a tray of falafel that he fries on site. There, Alsudaney picks every ball, layers every ingredient from the lettuce and tomato to pickled turnips, and rolls every sandwich. There are a few tweaks to be made, he admits — first with the sauces. Customers here are used to tahini, though he prefers the spicy mango amba and date sauce dibis, both of which you can find at Falafel Chee if you ask. Alsudaney swears, one he gets his own place, that he’s also going to perfect his samoon bread using another hand-built oven, but for now he’s fine with the Lebanese stuff. Mostly, he just wants to believe that it’s all still possible, that a former translator turned doctor from Baghdad can really make it on the West Coast of America, selling the kind of falafel he’s always loved.
“This falafel I want to modernize,” says Alsudaney. “But if you have the brain, and you want to do also the physical thing, and the financial thing, you’re not going to make it. You need people who can support you.
The problem with me is, I’m the only one.”
Falafel Chee is open Saturday and Sunday only inside the West LA International Market at 10817 Venice Blvd., keeping hours from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.