Getting serious about really good shawarmas
Eating shawarmas for many consecutive meals is no easy feat. These aren’t light, dainty cucumber sandwiches but pitas stuffed with shavings of roasted meat and other fillings such as lettuce, tomato, and hummus. Shawarmas come from the Middle East but are cousin to other Mediterranean sandwiches, such as donairs in Turkey and gyros in Greece. In Vancouver, shawarma joints are everywhere, offering cheap, quick, and filling alternatives to your regular burger. So open your gullet wide and get ready to do some shawarma chomping.
First stop is the 1110 Denman Street location of Falafel King (the other location is at 1105 Davie Street), a popular spot for fuelling up before heading down to English Bay. “Best shawarma in town,” one customer declared as he walked in. That’s not what I think as I walk out. Perhaps if I’d tried the halal chicken, but I’d opted for beef ($5.95) instead. The server reached into a fridge for the meat and then nuked it in a microwave, before plonking it onto a pita. Ugh. The result was unsatisfying: spiced beef slices with tons of lettuce filler, tomato bits, and dripping tzatziki and hot sauce. It fills the calorie quotient but feels like generic fast food and leaves a yearning for something better.
Mitra Canteen (3034 Main Street) offers the opposite experience with its sunny yellow walls and cozy neighbourhood vibe. Owner Mori Tameh is genial, chatting warmly with regulars as he readies their orders. Tameh hails from Iran and takes great pride in the fare he serves: “We do everything from scratch,” he says. “No canned food.”
Along with dishes such as roasted lamb shank and chicken tajine, the menu features a halal chicken or lamb and beef shawarma ($6) with filling options that include lettuce, tomatoes, hummus, tabbouleh, tzatziki, and hot sauce. From large rotating spits, Tameh shaves strips of chicken fragrant with spices like cumin, paprika, and turmeric, as well as generous slices of an amalgam of peppery lamb and beef that have been ground and mixed together. He explains that he combines the two meats since beef on its own tends to dry out, and many of his customers find that the gamy taste of lamb needs tempering. Put them together, and it’s just right.
For those who embrace the unadulterated flavour of lamb, Babylon Café (708 Robson Street, 105–1610 Robson Street, and 1156 Denman Street) is the destination. The Robson and Granville location often has a lineup snaking out the door of people looking for a shawarma fix. They’re drawn by the intoxicating aromas that drift down the block. What Babylon offers is indeed a serious shawarma, especially if you ask for “the works”, which includes halal lamb ($6.95) or chicken ($5.95), tabbouleh, green peppers, banana peppers, pickles, cucumbers, tomatoes, red onion, lettuce, pickled turnips, hummus, garlic mayo, tzatziki, tahini, and hot sauce. In texting speak, it’s an OMG!
Employee Zahir Alsindy says that 20-kilogram hunks of chicken and lamb are marinated for 24 hours—the latter in salt, pepper, and oil, and the former in salt, pepper, oil, lemon juice, and vinegar. They’re then put on rotisserie spits, and after two hours of roasting they’re ready for shaving. Alsindy is from Baghdad, and he says that shawarma spots are as common there as Starbucks locations are here: “At every corner, you see shawarma places.”
Kitsilano’s West 4th Avenue now has a shawarma place with the recently opened Mr. Shawarma (1859 West 4th Avenue). Co-owner Max Awadalla was born in Syria and has lived all over the Middle East. For Mr. Shawarma, he was inspired by one he had in Zarqa, Jordan. What he remembers is the simplicity and the quality of the ingredients: just pita, meat, and creamy garlic sauce. “This way, you could enjoy the meat and taste it in your mouth,” he says by phone.
In order to capture the spirit of that shawarma, he focuses on freshness and exacting ingredient standards. All meat and fixings are made in-house, many on an hourly basis and always following his golden shawarma rule. “You have to put your heart into it,” Awadalla explains.
The flavours of add-ins like tabbouleh, hummus, and pickled turnips are distinct and bold—a far cry from a bland, indistinguishable mouthful of ingredients. Right now there is only halal chicken ($5.99), but Awadalla plans to add beef and lamb. Judging by the chicken—moist and mildly seasoned with paprika, garlic, and cumin—Mr. Shawarma can back up the menu claim that “You’ll be saying, ”˜I love Shawarma!’ ” after you taste theirs.
Even after sampling four different shawarmas in a row, this intrepid shawarma taster still does.