Downtown Madison is inundated with hole-in-the-wall shwarma joints offering exceptionally satisfying meals at dirt-cheap prices. But King of Falafel (453 W. Gilman St.) stands out.

Just a few weeks ago, King of Falafel reopened its doors after a long summer hiatus — it had suffered a host of problems. Before the closing, I had been a regular diner and, on my recent visit, I noticed a drastic improvement in the food quality, service and décor.

The establishment is divided into two sections. A take-out portion of the restaurant facing University Avenue overlooks the open-air kitchen, offering diners the opportunity to enjoy meals on the go. A larger section of the restaurant, an informal, cozy dining area adorned with Arabian artifacts and featuring Middle Eastern music, serves as an ideal setting for a relaxing feast.

The chef serves generous portions of creative dishes. Each plate is artfully prepared, with entrée prices starting at a mere $4. The menu features a wide array of dining options ranging from inexpensive, fabulously satisfying pita sandwiches to extravagant feasting options.

The Shish Taouk ($4.95), marinated chicken topped with lettuce, onions and tomatoes, arrived in a thin, warm pita with a side of perfectly cooked French fries and tahini sauce. The waiter highly recommended the Lamb Shwarma ($4.95), thin layers of lamb topped with lettuce, onions, and tomatoes and the perfectly crisp Falafel sandwich with hummus ($4.95) topped with lettuce and tomatoes.

I began my sensationally gluttonous dinner with M'hamara ($4.95), a creamy blend of roasted red peppers pureed with lemon juice, crushed walnuts and fresh chunks of garlic, garnished with a layer of olive oil and parsley flakes served with a basket of oven-fresh thin-sliced pita.

Entrées are accompanied by a choice of Harerah green or red lentil soup or the colorful Fattoosh salad. The Fattoosh, a large bowl of crisp romaine lettuce, tomato chunks and sliced cucumber is topped with mint, radish, sumac and toasted pita chips in a mild and smooth olive oil-lemon dressing is possibly the freshest, most unique salad in town.

I'd skip the standard soup, a blend of red lentils, onions and spices resembling a bland soup base similar to a vegetable stock. Perhaps the Harerah, a mix of green lentils, rice, vegetables and spices carries a more substantial flavor.

For main courses, I sampled both a vegetarian and a carnivorous dish. I'd highly recommend the Monazala ($9.95), a simple comforting eggplant, onion, chickpeas sauté covered in chunky tomato sauce and diced garlic, surrounded by a heaping portion of seasoned yellow rice.

The most popular menu item — the Chicken Shwarma ($9.95) holds weight against the numerous Middle Eastern kitchens of Madison. Each layer of soft chicken is marinated in "special dressing" and then oven roasted and accompanied by a delicious, cool and refreshing yogurt sauce.

The only disappointment to an otherwise seamless meal was the Hummus with Beef ($9.95), a plate thickly lined in hummus covered with an overwhelming portion of sautéed ground beef. The Hummus on pita held its own, but when combined with the bizarre tasting beef sauté, it failed to please. I was in the mood for cow, but after a few bites, my craving ceased.

For more deluxe fare and a sampling of nearly every menu item, bring along some friends and try one of the enormous sharing plates immaculately prepared for groups of two or more.

Our charming, humorous and attentive waiter insisted we order the freshly baked Baklava ($2), one of my favorite treats for which I acquired a taste while traveling though Greece. King of Falafel's version of this triangle-shaped dessert — layers of phyllo dough stuffed with crushed pistachios, cinnamon, sugar and honey — was comparable to that served in the authentic bakeries abroad. Along with my dessert, I was offered a complimentary cup of sweet tea — the perfect ending to an outstanding dining experience.