How I learned to love the shawarma

(Originally written March 27, 2012)

Although not uniquely a Torontonian culinary specialty (I’m told that Ottawa and Montreal have their fair share of shawarma shops), it’s safe to say that I never would’ve tasted shawarma had I not moved here.  It’s definitely not something you see a lot of in Calgary, especially not in the Northwest part of town where I grew up.  Alas, I discovered the Middle-Eastern staple in my college days due to an abundance of shawarmarias (for lack of a better term) downtown, particularly on Yonge St–and one in particular whose clever marketing caught my hungry eyes.

I’m pretty sure that the location now known as Lebanon Express used to be called something else back in the day–in fact, it seems to me that the spot has changed ownership a couple times.  But while the former name escapes me, I do remember the writing on the window advertising two shawarma sammies for six bucks.  I used to walk by the place all the time en route to get groceries, when on one fateful evening, I decided that even though I wasn’t sure what a shawarma was, two sandwiches for six dollars seemed like a pretty sweet deal.  I then ordered a pair of stuffed pitas filled with sliced beef and exotic toppings like tahini, hummus and and picked turnips, not knowing what everything was at first, but not afraid to try it.  Soon, it became a staple in my diet.  If you still don’t know what I’m talking about–you’re obviously not from around here–it’s sort of like a Middle-Eastern burrito, and looks a little something like this:

shawarma (5)

I must say that I’ve mostly moved on from the sandwich variety to the shawarma plate when a couple years ago when I realized that you could get a great big helping of food for a reasonable price at most shawarma shops in the city.  A plate usually comes with shawarma meat (I mostly go for beef), rice, potatoes, tabbouleh (parsley salad) and pita bread–which can often make or break the dish–and generally costs about 10-12 dollars (including a bottled drink).  According to The Dish, it also contains 1,307 calories, 64 grams of fat and 2,369 mg of sodium.  Yummy!

Unfortunately, on a return trip to where it all began last summer, I was disappointed in Lebanon Express’ shawarma plate.  For one, they had no beef roasting on the spit, and their chicken was hard and crusty, to say nothing of the service behind the counter.  Mind you, it was 11:45, before the big lunchtime rush, but that’s still no excuse.

Of course, you can’t throw a stone on Yonge Street between Queen and Bloor without hitting a shawarma shop, and I’ve been to just about all of them.  One place I hadn’t tried until last week, however, was Paramount, which opened its doors just south of Dundas about a year and a half ago.  How I missed this place before is beyond me (though it must be said that, generally speaking, the best eats on Yonge are found north of the Eaton Centre).  Their plates featured freshly-grilled meat with pickles and beets, tabbouleh and a choice of rice or french fries for fat fucks like me.  But their true coup de grace was the pita bread, baked so fresh that steam would rise when you pulled it apart.  Oh man…  One bite and I could see why this place gets packed at lunchtime!  On the other hand, the tabbouleh was pretty bland, pretty much just chopped parsley, but tis only a minor complaint.

There are also no less than a handful of shawarma shops near my current digs in The Annex, between Bathurst and Spadina on Bloor Street.  Let’s see, there’s Laila, Ali Baba’s, Ghazale, Sarah’s… and that one just west of Spadina whose name escapes me at the moment.  Actually, Laila just shut down, which saddens me somewhat as it was my personal favourite.  Sure, the decor was definitely dated, but they had the best plates in my books because they actually grilled their meat right when you ordered it, instead of hacking it off the spit and heating in in the microwave, as some other places have been known to do.  Mind you, they didn’t used to grill it until they got a “Conditional Pass” on a food safety inspection a couple years back, but I digress.  The place is currently up for lease at 40 bucks per square foot, and apparently there’s no shortage of potential tenants.  Oh well, maybe it’s time I finally tried that place just west of Spadina…

Although I’ve never been, the Me Va Me Express on Steeles Ave in Thornhill makes a shawarma on a baguette that’s reportedly as big as a grown man’s forearm, and a shawarma pita that “closely resembles the size of a five-year-old boy’s head,” which contains more calories than two KFC Double Downs.  Man, I’m getting hungry just reading the (lack of) nutritional content on this thing.  I just need to find a(nother) reason to head up to Thornhill!

UPDATE: For what it’s worth, the location that used to be Laila is now a Popeye’s. And I still haven’t made it up to the suburbs for a grown-man’s-forearm shawarma.  One of these days…


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