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March 21, 2024

Meet the couple bringing traditional falafel to Prospect

Mazen and Sahar El-Baba continue their family tradition in an unassuming cafe in Prospect. Expect the greatest falafel you can find this side of the Middle East, and a menu steeped in history.

  • Words: Charlie Hemphrey
  • Pictures: Supplied

“To many people, falafel is important,” Mazen says, standing by the fryer in his crisp chef whites, “but they are doing it in a very poor way.”

If anyone is the authority on the crisp chickpea snack, it is Mazen El-Baba. Since the 1970s, the El-Baba family has cemented itself as a culinary dynasty in the Middle East, operating eateries from Beirut to Dubai.

Hailing from the coastal city of Sidon, Lebanon, Mazen El-Baba and his wife Sahar have found their way to Adelaide, and it sounds like they have a thing or two to teach us about falafel.


Falafel Station

101A Prospect Rd, Prospect SA 5082

Tuesday – Saturday 8am-4pm  Sunday 8am-3pm  Monday  Closed

“In the beginning, our customers would ask us ‘why don’t you do shawarma?’ and it’s because in our country if you go to a falafel shop, you should only find falafel. If you go to a falafel shop in Lebanon and ask for shawarma, they will kick you out,” Sahar says, her smiling face a reassurance that nobody will be getting kicked out today.

The Adelaide customer base is quickly learning, though.

“At first, the people were hesitant about the food as it wasn’t quite what they were used to,” says Sahar. “Now the people come and they say ‘whatever you want to give me, I will take it’ because they trust us to feed them and nourish them.”

A falafel wrap with salad is as familiar to a Western audience as a hamburger or fried chicken.

The difference here is in the quality of the raw ingredients, the meticulous execution, and the honouring of a tradition that is not simply based on convenience.

“We don’t do fast food. We do fresh food,” Mazen says with confidence that fills the room.

Mazen’s grandmother, who was from Haifa, passed down the falafel recipe.

Mazen begins with the soaking and rinsing of the chickpeas and split fava beans, a process that takes three days. This mixture is then ground together with a fresh hand-mixed selection of spices, then fried to order. To further preserve this freshness, the falafel have a dedicated fryer, constantly monitored and cleaned for the “consistency of the flavour”.

This dedication to freshness continues through to the salad and vegetables. Mazen and Sahar travel to an organic farm in Virginia twice a week for their produce, another step in ensuring only the best raw material makes it to Falafel Station.

Alongside the falafel wraps is an evolving selection of homemade dips, including creamy hummus, gently spiced muhammara, and the delightfully smoke-tinged baba ghannouj.

Those of us with a sweet tooth can breathe a honey-drenched sigh of relief as the menu also features Middle Eastern desserts and pastries – again, all homemade.

It’s here that Mazen’s French cooking education comes to the fore. His skill with butter and pastry is stunning. You haven’t had baklava quite like this before.

“French technique can be applied to any kitchen. It’s how you respect the raw material, the cooking process, and the kitchen cleanliness,” Mazen explains.

Couple this philosophy with a bachelor’s degree from the Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon, and suddenly, Mazen’s gleaming chef whites have some context. Falafel Station is the culmination of a life spent pursuing culinary excellence.

Mazen and Sahar both recognise the crucial support they have received from the local community in their first eight months of business.

“We have a huge range of customers from everywhere and we were able to get plenty of exposure from the Prospect Gala and similar events,” Sahar says.

“When we first arrived in Adelaide and opened the business, we had no connections. We were trying to sell a product that people didn’t quite understand. Those were the biggest challenges. We owe so much to our early supporters who shared our story through online reviews and social media.”

Falafel Station still retains a five-star rating on Google after more than 100 reviews; a remarkable feat in the modern hospitality scene given the diverse tastes of a food-literate population.

Appealing to these diverse tastes and needs whilst retaining the business’s values is what keeps things interesting for Mazen and Sahar.

They have recently started taking on larger catering events such as weddings and other celebrations to offer something else, alongside what they have already perfected.

They also offer a traditional Lebanese breakfast option, with dishes such as foul: fava beans and chickpeas that have been lovingly cooked down for 16 hours with lemon and garlic, drizzled with South Australian extra virgin olive oil from Victor Harbour.

“Simple but full of flavour,” Sahar says, “like everything we do.”

“Our breakfast is the healthiest you could ever eat. Nothing fried. All fresh,” Mazen interjects from the kitchen.

The pair constantly work throughout our chat, looking after customers and preparing orders. As a final question, I ask about their two young sons and how it feels to share the business with them.

“They both have such a good mindset and it was very easy for them to make the move to Australia,” Sahar says, unable to hide her pride.

“My wife and children support me so much, they are constantly helping me during their weekends and school holidays,” Mazen says, handing me a Lebanese coffee and a falafel wrap for the trip home.

With a business so heavily rooted in family and tradition, it clearly pleases the couple that the El-Baba culinary journey will continue long into the future with an Adelaide audience. We are lucky they chose us.

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