Young and Hungry

I’ve Eaten Enough Shawarma Now to Realize I Don’t Understand Shawarma

My recent visit to Shawarma King, one of the new Middle Eastern sandwich joints in Adams Morgan, finally humbled me. As I sat there, chewing on yet another mediocre shawarma sandwich, its beef dry and its flavors as much sour as savory, I decided that I must be missing something. Or that my palate is too Americanized to appreciate this ubiquitous street food.

I mean, with the exception of the Lebanese Butcher and Restaurant in Falls Church, I don't think I've had a shawarma in this area that makes me want to stand atop the Washington Monument and shout its praises. Many of them, I find, are too dry (likely from spinning on the rotisserie for hours without enough fat to keep them moist) or too sour (from a marinade that can include yogurt, lemon and even pomegranates) or too underseasoned or served in stale pitas. Or all of the above.

With my visit to the Shawarma King, it finally dawned on me that I am the only constant in all my bleh experiences at shawarma joints. Maybe my expectations are all wrong. Maybe my palate is calibrated for the liberal amounts of seasonings that Western chefs use? Maybe sour should be the dominate flavor?

But here's one thing I know: The meat should never be dry. One manager of a shawarma shop in town told me that lamb in the Middle East is much fattier than the stuff available in the United States. (I suspect the same is true for beef, too, given how U.S. cattlemen are now producing leaner meat.) The two meats are (or should be) the starring ingredients in your shawarma sandwich, assuming you don't order a chicken shawarma.

Fat, of course, equals flavor, which might explain some of what's missing in my shawarma experience. But even if there were more fat, I'd still miss the seasonings. Sure, I could just pile more toppings onto the sandwich to add flavor, but then I'd just be drowning out the main ingredient, not complementing it.

Help me out here, you shawarma experts. Am I off base with my harsh assessments of our local offerings or do most of our shawarma shops just skate by on mediocrity?

  • HCC

    When I worked at a middle eastern sandwich shop in Boulder we were supposed to make the shawarma spits with only a little bit of lamb (though it was always a nice fatty chunk) we were told to just put one or two pieces in so that the fat would drip down and marinate the beef. We'd sneak in more lamb when the owner/boss wasn't around to yell at us and it made a huge difference.

    You also have to pay a lot more attention than you think to the temp on the heating elements, bottom line is that it is really easy to dry the meat out. And at a lot of places if the outside is done or getting over done they cut it down and leave it in a pile at the bottom and then scoop that up (this happens with gyros too)

    That being said I haven't had any around town in a long time so who knows, but I bet it's not you.

  • Tim Carman

    Thanks for your insights, HCC.

  • CTR

    Sounds like the shawarma issue stateside may be the same issue that prevents so many non-Texas briskets from shining: lower fat content.

  • S

    Maybe you just don't like shawarma? Everyone has certain foods they don't really enjoy. I really liked the Shawarma at the King. I haven't tried the Spot yet though. I heard they have legit Doner kabob at the new Urfa Tomato Kabob near Verizon Center.

    Remember that street food isn't necessarily supposed to knock your socks off or be gourmet. It's supposed to be a cheap, filling meal much the same (in purpose at least) as fast food is here. Unfortunately, since it's more of a delicacy, middle eastern street food isn't necessarily cheap in the States (relatively, but still ~$6).


    To tell you the truth, you are right! There is no good shawarma in DC! I am from the Middle East, studying in DC. I sometimes get cravings for a really good shawarma, and get disappointed with the quality here!
    The taste of a shawarma should not be compromised with toppings. A good chicken shwarma should have well spiced, THINLY sliced tender chicken, garlic sauce, tomato, and maybe slices of french fries on good freshly baked bread or wrap!

  • Michealle

    I Really Think that Shawarma spot is on top i really like their food and environment I been to the middle east too but I can See Shawarma Spot Being on top of Shawarma Restaurant in DC

  • William

    Ok, I was just google searching Shawarma in the DC area and found this. I see this posting is almost 2 years old. I want to say that I used to work in NW and have been to both Spot and King. I always found that their Shawarma's, while good for an American made version, was not good for traditional versions. I have had two really good ones in and around the DC Metro Area. Both are in Virginia. One in Woodbridge at Pizza King, on route 1 across the street from Checkers. And the second at Alf Laylah Wa Laylah on Metrotech Drive in fairfax/chantilly next to Midas. Both have moist juicy meat on their shawarmas and the flavoring is perfect. Now I work in SW and want a shawarma but dont want to travel all the way to adams morgan to get one. Anyone know of a place down this way?

  • Adnan

    For best in DC go to MAXX's in silver spring.


  • Kenneth

    there used to be a Middle Eastern grocer in Cathedral Heights named Shemali's. They made a fantastic shawarma, but when the Giant grocery store announced it would tear down and rebuild (about 15 years ago), Shemali's was forced to relocate to an office building that didn't allow them to cook. turns out, the Giant grocery store renovation STILL hasn't happened.

    anyway, i'd love to find a good shawarma in dc. i've been to Spot, King, George's (in g'town) and Quick Pita and they were all poor excuses for what I got from Shemali's, with pickled turnips and tahini. damn, that was good.

  • kamsey

    my recent experience here also needs to be shared i grabbed a mixed chicken and beef shawarma anticipating the experience i was going to get but was quickly disappointed when i took the first bite. The chicken was not well done and was sparsely sprinkled onto the conduments while the beef was hard, not well spiced