The westernmost New York City outpost of the dwindling Mercadito taco empire, Mercadito Grove, had been closed only a few weeks when Mirage Kitchen moved into the storefront, located just southwest of Sheridan Square on Seventh Avenue South. The small, wedge-shaped space is now more brightly lit, with a poured-concrete eating shelf running along the extensive windowed frontage, providing a dozen stools good for watching the tourist hordes that pass in front of the shop. There are twice as many seats at outdoor tables, soon to be rendered useless by colder weather. The build-out is modern looking, with decoration limited to red geometric patterns on one wall and sprays of pastel gladiolas.
The menu is not unlike that of the falafel stands on MacDougal Street, only revamped to be a little more modern and gimmicky — and more expensive, too, though the food is still a bargain for the neighborhood. At its heart, the menu is Syrian, though the offerings would be recognized by any fan of Middle Eastern fare. The food is nearly excellent. A pair of twirling shawarma cylinders are the center of attention, the darker one compounded of beef and lamb (though tasting not quite like either); the other zatar-rubbed chicken. Both are available as pita sandwiches ($7.95) or as complete-meal bowls ($9.50). Rather than utilizing pocket pitas, the sandwiches are rolled, Levantine-style, in big thin flatbreads to make a cylinder, so the sandwiches are bigger and easier to eat. Inside the bread, in addition to meat, are pickle spears, assorted roughage, and the wonderful white garlic sauce called toum — probably inspired during Syria and Lebanon's colonial era (they were once one colony) by French aioli.
The bowls include copious quantities of moist yellow rice, a chopped vegetable salad with purple onions, and a round, hot, green pickled chile, with toum on the side. The two formats, rolled sandwich and bowl, also apply to the "five spice" falafel, which has the texture of kibbe, with a cracked-wheat shell and the usual spongy interior. I couldn't detect any spices, but the falafels were nicely cooked, and didn't display the usual defect of being raw in the middle.
A handful of other sides and mini-mains are also available. Most remarkable are the chickpea fries ($3.50) that are known as panisse in the south of France. These also come with toum. Really, these chickpea fries are better than French fries — creamy inside and crusty on the outside — especially if you're burned out on fries. The menu offers a side of baba ganoush ($4.50) littered with pomegranate seeds and smoky, but otherwise unremarkable, in addition to hummus and a couple of salads.
Mirage Kitchen's no mirage — it's a solid place for a reasonably price lunch or a fast, modest dinner, and a boon to vegetarians. And, since Hudson Falafel closed, there's nothing quite like it in the neighborhood except for Taim on Waverly Place, which tenders an overlapping Israeli take on Middle Eastern cuisine. 100 Seventh Ave South, 212-206-1213.