Nestled right next to each other on Witherspoon Street, Mamoun’s Falafel and Olives are two of the most popular establishments for Mediterranean cuisine in Princeton. I reviewed and compared two traditional Greek dishes from each restaurant to see how they measured up: spanakopita, or spinach pie, and baklava, a dessert pastry filled with nuts. First up, I trekked down past Small World Coffee and stopped by Mamoun's.
Mamoun's is a regional chain, and its first location opened in Greenwich Village in 1971, and it has been catering to New Yorkers’ cravings for all things falafel ever since. According to their website, they claim to be the oldest Middle Eastern restaurant in New York. As for its Princeton location, it opened its doors in 2014.
Upon entering, Mamoun’s is a long, narrow room that offers a sit-down or takeout dining experience, depending on the customer’s preference. There’s ample room to sit and eat, so Mamoun's can be a nice place to grab a meal with a friend or two.
Shortly after I ordered, a spinach pie priced at $3.00 arrived on the counter with a shout, “Order 66!” On my paper tray were two triangular pies. With a thin layer of dark, crisp spinach sandwiched between two layers of golden-brown crust and served with a side of bright pink radish, the restaurant’s take on the Greek staple proved a visual feast. However, the flavor itself fell short. The spinach tasted smoky, almost burnt, and the pastry, which seemed crisp and flaky upon first glance, proved deceptively dry. Mamoun’s spanakopita just wasn’t for me.
I hoped its baklava, also priced at $3.00, would make up for the disappointing entrée. Although it wasn’t spectacular, it was surprisingly yummy. A small square of thick pastry with a thin filling of chopped nuts and syrup, the dessert was tasty, though a bit dry. Happily, I was satisfied.
I then proceeded to its neighbor, Olives. Olives is more of a deli, though it does have a small sitting area near the entrance (you’ll have to fistfight the perpetual crowd of people inside for a seat, however). Whereas Mamoun’s was all booths and tables with a register in the back, Olives dedicates most of its room to its rotating selection of Greek and vegetarian options, an assortment that the establishment prides itself on.
Olives’ spanakopita, at $5.50, was a bit pricier than Mamoun’s, though understandably so. Rather than being served as two triangles, Olives’ spinach pie is a large, dense square, which you have the option of being heated before purchase. I chose to have my spanakopita cold, and it almost seemed better because it was chilled. There were other factors, too, of course: the filling was deliciously thick and creamy and seemed to have much more feta than the one from Mamoun’s; the crust, though lacking in the golden-brown color and crispy texture of its rival's dish, struck the perfect chord between soft and crispy.
I then moved on to the baklava, which Olives sells for $2.75, though it’s half the size of Mamoun’s. When I unwrapped the packaging, the filling had oozed out of the pastry, making it seem almost wet. Based on presentation, I expected it to be a disharmonious stacking of dry and soggy layers, but I was pleasantly surprised to find the baklava consistently moist and soft. The filling was also delicious — as sweet as expected but brought out the nut flavor. I left Olives sure of my verdict.
While Mamoun’s is comparatively inexpensive and maintains excellent presentation, in terms of both the menu and the restaurant itself, its dishes ultimately prove lacking. Olives, though a bit pricier and wanting in terms of sitting arrangements, is worth the extra money and will motivate multiple trips back.