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W hen the bars are closing and there’s a rumble in your stomach and maybe a stumble in your step, you can count on Mamoun’s, a BYO Middle Eastern spot with dim lighting and rugs on the walls, to be there for you.

That’s because Mamoun’s has a 365-days-a-year operating policy. Seven days a week, holidays included, from 11 a.m. to 3 a.m., the bells attached to the front door are busy jangling. Blizzards haven’t stopped Mamoun’s; neither did Hurricane Sandy. Suleiman Chater, who now co-owns the New Haven location with his brother Tarek, vaguely recalls one time Mamoun’s failed to open. It was due to a problem with the sewer system along Howe Street, he thinks, sometime during the ’90s.

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The standard of 365-days-a-year service was set by the business’s founder, Mamoun Chater, the brothers’ uncle. A Syrian immigrant, he opened the first Mamoun’s Falafel on New York City’s Macdougal Street in 1971. The second location launched in New Haven in 1977, with his brother Muhammad—Suleiman’s and Tarek’s father—in charge. That began a slow and steady, occasionally retreating, course of expansion that now encompasses six locations in the tri-state area. The restaurant’s title font—with its round-edged, bell-bottomed letters—seems tinged with those early, groovy years in Greenwich Village. The marathon, late-night schedule has also been retained, though Suleiman admits that keeping it up “takes a lot out of you.”

Besides late hours, Mamoun’s is known for offering a hot deal on a falafel sandwich ($3.85, with a $6.95 platter option) and having truly hot hot sauce. The falafel balls I had were hearty, the lamb Shish Kebob ($6.50 sandwich, $12.25 dish) tender and the Kafta lamb patties ($6.50 sandwich, $12.25 dish) both juicy and slightly charred.

But even fans of hot sauce should think twice before slathering Mamoun’s version on such dishes. Placed by the front counter in containers that look dangerously similar to ketchup bottles, even a small amount blazes down your throat, dampens your nostrils and sets chapped lips stinging. Cool tomato, onion and parsley and mellow, creamy tahini embedded within whatever sandwich you order may seem well-situated to counter the power of the sauce, but in fact, they’re not enough. Extreme caution and deft application are your surest bets at enjoying this potent concoction. Think drops, not dollops.

If you haven’t obliterated your tastebuds by the time you finish the main course, there’s a lesser-known but worthy stock of desserts to choose from. These include long, dainty Ladyfingers, crumbly blocks of sesame-derived “Halawah” ($2.95) and moist and flaky “Baklawa” ($2.50) cut into thin parallelograms. For anyone looking for an odd bird, the decorative Bird’s Nest ($4.35) is a visual pleasure. It cradles honied nuts—pistachios, walnuts, almonds—instead of eggs, in a phyllo dough “nest” with a bright red cherry sitting on top.

Like the food, the atmosphere is laden with heritage. On the wall over the counter hangs a photo of Mamoun the founder, girded on either side by a bejeweled sword, gilded scabbard and two sinuous daggers. Many-sided, many-colored glass lanterns hang from the ceiling while speakers pump out pop tunes with lyrics in Arabic.

Arabic can also be heard among the sounds of the kitchen, and even among some of the waitstaff, like Alaa Abdulmohsin, who came to New Haven as a refugee from Mosul, Iraq, three years ago and has worked at Mamoun’s for the past two. “You speak whatever you need to speak,” says Suleiman, who was born in Damascus, Syria, and regularly toggles between Arabic and English. Above the door to the kitchen are marks of the impact Mamoun’s has had on New Haven: a slew of New Haven Advocate reader awards, like a 2013 plaque dubbing it the “best place to go after the bars close.”

Even some 40 years after setting down roots in New Haven, Mamoun’s is still the place to fill that grumbling, late-night space in your stomach that’s shaped an awful lot like a falafel sandwich.

Mamoun’s Falafel Restaurant
85 Howe St, New Haven (map)
Open daily 11am-3am
(203) 562-8444
www.mamouns.com

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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