Shawarma King, Revisited
As promised, I went back to Shawarma King last Wednesday, May 27, for a guided tour and meal with owner Butros Qumseya, who requested I give his restaurant a second go after he read my negative review in the Feed a few weeks back.
Disclaimer: Food critics eat anonymously because the average restaurateur, if given the chance, would make sure that a critic had the best experience possible at his restaurant; one that the average diner would not have. Seeing as I promised Qumseya to come by when the shawarma might be juicier, I do know, for a fact, that I was treated differently the second time around than when I wandered in off the street a few weeks back. I agreed to a second visit in part because I felt guilty for slamming his restaurant when it already had—among other things—location going against it. (Case in point: When I showed up Wednesday morning, someone had sloppily vandalized Shawarma King's storefront using acid, which left clearly visible grooves in the glass.) But more importantly, I wanted to see if Qumseya was blowing smoke about the shawarma being better right around lunchtime than during the late afternoon. Qumseya refused—not once, but twice—to accept my money. I paid nothing for my meal.
Qumseya and his wife are setting tiny silver bowls of spices on the tables in Shawarma King when I show up a few minutes before 11 a.m. Qumseya stops what he's doing and shakes my hand as if he is surprised to see me. He must have sensed at our earlier meeting that I'm the type to break a date.
I want to get down to the business of reviewing shawarma, but before I can say anything, Qumseya explains that the meats won't be ready until just after 11 a.m.
The tour starts at the vertical gas burners that are blazing away on their highest setting. Within seconds I'm trying to intercept my sweat before it drips onto the floor, as Qumseya explains that the chicken goes on the skewer at 9:30 a.m. and the beef at 9 a.m. Both are usually ready a few minutes after Shawarma King opens at 11 a.m., he says. The beef marinates overnight for 8 hours and the chicken for 3-4 hours (which explains why the beef shawarma is the more vinegary of the two). A minute into the tour and I am drenched in sweat. I ask Qumseya about the heat.
"We keep it on high all day," he says, breaking into a dignified sweat of his own. "Some people turn it down like this to keep from drying," he adds, "and then turn it up like this when a customer comes in."
Shortly after it opened in late December 2008, Shawarma King received two back-to-back visits from health inspectors, according to Qumseya. Both times the inspector went straight for his meat thermometer.
Qumseya knew that because he doesn't cook his meat to order, he has to keep it at serving temperature all day or else risk fines. After the inspections, he says he realized that "making it small and making it twice is better than making it big and turning down the heat."
Small, in this case, is relative. One batch of chicken shawarma makes approximately 30 sandwiches, and a batch of beef, which is slightly more popular and thus bigger, makes 40 sandwiches.
Qumseya has made only one large batch since opening. "On March 25," he says while looking wistfully out the acid-stained window, "a party of 60 people said they were coming to my restaurant for a celebration. I made a big shawarma then."
At our earlier meeting, Qumseya told me that he gets his meat shipped to the store. For some reason, I left that meeting under the impression that the meat came pre-seasoned. When I bring this up, Qumseya breaks his reverie and asks me to follow him to the kitchen, where he retrieves two bloody bags of vacuum-sealed meat from the fridge as evidence that no one spices Qumseya's beef and chicken but Qumseya.
I ask for his marinade recipe.
"Lemon and vinegar..." he says, his voice trailing off, "and some other things."
He looks at the bloody package in front of him, swears that it's the best meat his money can buy, and then sighs.
"In my country—in Bethlehem," he says, "we didn't buy meat from the wholesaler; we got it fresh every day from the butcher."
A smaller bag in the fridge contains lamb, the fat of which he places in between layers of beef to keep it moist. Oddly, most of his American customers request that he omit the lamb fat from their sandwiches.
"But it's tasty," I say.
"Tell them that," he says.
Next Qumseya shows me his bread. Like the meat, it comes in a package that has someone else's name on it. Qumseya points to the ingredients on the bag of lavash from the Middle East Bakery.
"No soy," he says.
I ask him why he doesn't make his own. Surely the recipe for soy-free lavash isn't a secret.
"This bag costs one dollar for four pieces," he says. "I could make ten pieces of lavash for one dollar, but it wouldn't taste as good. Makes more sense to buy."
This is no small admission for Qumseya, who solemnly counts among his restaurant credentials his bachelor's degree in food science, obtained from Iraq's Basra University in 1978.
I ask him what he does make in the store. He points at the menu and begins naming items: shawarma salad, hummus, falafel, tzatziki. His wife, who has been eyeing me suspiciously from behind the counter, says something to him in Arabic. Qumseya lights up and points to the row of large jars in the back of the kitchen.
"We make our turnips!"
His wife interjects. "We pickle them," she says.
Qumseya nods impatiently before resuming. "They take about—"
"—three days," she says.
"—a week," Qumseya fires back, shooting an ornery sideways glance at his wife and then smiling apologetically at me.
She says something to him in Arabic. He shrugs.
I pull out my cell phone to check the time. It's 11:10 a.m. I ask him when I can eat a sandwich.
"A few more minutes," Qumseya says. "Let's have coffee first."
Realizing that this isn't going to be an in-and-out affair, I settle down at a table at the back of the store near the storage room. Qumseya arrives from the kitchen carrying a tray on which there are two small, ornate espresso-sized cups with saucers, and a steal ladle attached to a small vat. Qumseya pours us each a cup of coffee and then settles into the seat opposite mine.
"It's good that Americans write about restaurants," he says. "The competition is better for the customers, and I like that."
He takes a long sip.
"But I didn't see it coming."
I consider apologizing as I raise my cup to my face. This is not the visit I had planned. The coffee is bitter, black, and muddy, with a hint of mint. Instead I ask him, "Does this Turkish coffee have mint in it?"
His mood changes immediately.
"I don't know why they call it Turkish coffee. It's Arabic coffee."
He hops out of his seat and disappears into the storeroom. He comes back holding a green bag of coffee covered in Arabic writing. He hands it to me and I see English writing on the front: "Cafe Najjar with Cardamom." Cardamom, not mint.
When I look up from the bag, I discover that Qumseya has disappeared again. This time he is behind the counter, poking at the chicken.
"You want a sandwich?" He calls over his shoulder.
He directs my attention to the shawarma, both of which are bubbling with fat and marinade.
"Falafel is old, but shawarma is new, only 50 or 60 years," he says as he slices fatty, seasoned pieces of chicken into the catch pan. "It started between Turkey and Greece and then spread to Europe and the Middle East."
He asks me what I want on my sandwich and I tell him to make it as if he were going to eat it. He grabs my lavash out of the toaster and smears it with hummus then walks to the grill and piles on the chicken shawarma. I notice that he's making my sandwich with much more meat than when I was here last time. He walks back to the topping bar and carefully spoons on some onions, pickles ("The best in D.C.," Qumseya claims. "From Bethlehem!"), shawarma salad, tehini, and garlic paste.
"Hot sauce?" He asks.
"Would you eat it with hot sauce?"
He drops on two spoonfuls of the red-pepper concoction.
I reach out my hand to intercept the sandwich. Qumseya ignores me as if I were a petulant child and instead wraps the sandwich in tinfoil and puts it on a panini press. When it's done, he tells me to sit down and then he brings me my sandwich in a basket. My worries that he'll hang around dissipate when his wife calls to him in Arabic. He spins on his heel, and they huddle 15 feet away on the other side of the counter.
As I munch in peace, enjoying a completely different and entirely superior sandwich than the one I ate two weeks prior, I wonder how in God's name I'll spin this experience into a legitimate review. Qumseya has been so sweet to me, and deep down I know that he really wants me to write something positive so that he can hang it on the wall of his shop. In that sense, he's angling for the better deal on this transaction. Dejected, I realize that I am no good at being objective. Either I write like my subjects are inhuman, which hurts their feelings, or I enjoy them so much that I'm incapable of saying anything that they might perceive as a slight.
Out of nowhere Qumseya appears at my elbow with a beef shawarma in pita bread. He demands that I cleanse my palate with coffee before he'll hand me the second sandwich.
"Eat this! I gave you extra lamb fat because you said you liked it!"
His wife is standing behind him, holding a piece of baklava on a napkin. They look delighted.
I am a terrible food critic.