“He that but looketh on a plate of ham and eggs to lust after it hath already committed breakfast with it in his heart.”
– C.S. Lewis, author
Buenos Aires – The subject of shawarma has come up numerous times recently, in casual conversation with aquaintances, in more in-depth chats with those closer, and seemingly in a multitude of visual sightings around the city. There’s been a running joke in Buenos Aires for several years now that when your restaurant is about to go under, start serving sushi – and all of the sudden you’ll have every trendoid in the city flocking to your tables for the ubiquitous salmon and cream cheese sushi rolls. But with economic trends (300 restaurant closings within city limits during the months of September and October!), sushi may turn into a trend too expensive for José el Plomero to spend his hard earned pesos at. Perhaps the shawarma sandwich is the trend wave of the near future? A bit of online research turned up much confusion, argument, dissent, and bickering about just exactly where to go for the best spit roasted beef, lamb, or chicken wrapped carefully in flatbread – so the only thing there was to do was get myself out there and bite the pita….
Claiming to be the first to serve shawarma in the city, Arabian Food, Lavalle 697 at the corner of Maipú, 4328-4700, in Retiro is a small lunch counter with cafeteria trays and those useless plasticized napkinettes that we all hate. Street shills are passing out flyers up and down the block, and the place is clearly popular – Monday at lunchtime there was a short line, and as fast as any of the dozen bar stools or chairs in the place emptied, it was filled by another patron. We settled on one each of the beef and lamb, plus a couple of side falafel on a plate. Arabian Food offers up beef, lamb, and chicken versions, the only place I checked out that does – wrapped in a thin, heated pita bread with a smidgen of chopped lettuce, tomato, and onion, a splash of tahini sauce, and the option for a moderately spicy hot sauce to be added (mostly tomato puree with a little bit of hot pepper in it). The meat is moist though not what I’d call juicy, and underseasoned – perhaps a shake or two of some salt and pepper, let alone other spices, would serve them well – then again, the falafel too, was a bland fried cone of mashed chickpeas. The place is relatively cheap for the ‘hood – 8-11 pesos for a shawarma sandwich, and a “promo” of two beef shawarmas with a soda for 19 pesos, a savings of a whopping 2 pesos over ordering those three items individually. There’s a full menu of other middle eastern specialties, take-out and delivery are both available.
This place gets the most whispers about it – and for good reason, it’s really just dead-on perfect when it comes to the food. Demashk, Charcas 3816 in Palermo, 4833-6699, itself barely qualifies as a hole in the wall – or maybe that’s exactly what it qualifies as – there’s enough room outside of the kitchen for a service counter and an opposing wall “bar” with a few barstools – though they do have a few tables outside on the sidewalk. It’s a little greasy and grimy. The two cooks (owners?) are friendly and pretty attentive. The place is definitely frequented by the middle eastern community, at least half the people eating and/or who came in to get take out. There’s a full menu of various specialties available to dine in or take out, they offer delivery and catering services, plus a selection of middle eastern products on a couple of shelves available for purchase.
The shawarma itself, only available in beef. Beautifully cooked, with just a hint of a char on it, and layered with flavor. The meat was juicy, dripping, sloppy – and spiced with a tangy, lemony marinade, along with an array of spices that had been rubbed into it. Smartly, given the juciness, the shawarma is wrapped in a little plastic bag cone to catch the juices rather than having them drip all over everywhere, and a real napkin wrapped around that. This was everything a shawarma should be, and for a mere 7 pesos.
Haysam, Scalabrini Ortiz 1601, Palermo, 4833-9321, is a tough call. The ambiance is a corner coffee shop, with a few tables inside and a few more out. The staff are friendly, though a little off in space. Despite the fact that it was mid-lunch hour, the shawarma meat (beef only) slowly turning on a spit, wasn’t close to being ready, and there were already people waiting for their sandwiches, and more of us ordering – in fact, the cook, was downstairs taking a break, while the counter girl wandered about aimlessly, assuring each of us that it would be no more than five minutes (despite the meat still being basically rare), alternated with screaming down the steps for the cook to get upstairs and do something. And, again, despite being lunch hour (around 1 p.m.), she’d just gotten around to filling the coolers with sodas and water, so none of them were cold, and she only had a few ice cubes to allot to each person.
Now, the shawarma itself, is another story. When the cook came upstairs, eventually (15 minutes after I’d arrived), he sliced some meat off the spinning spit and tossed it on the flatop grill, where he browned it up quickly. It doesn’t end up with the same char that way, but hey, it’s what I was served, so it’s what I’m going with. The meat itself, nice and juicy, not quite dripping like at the previous spot, but plenty of moisture – that may be due to the grilltop cooking. The seasoning, an intriguing blend that I’d guess was black pepper and cinnamon – quite different from any I’ve tried before (I’m guessing something regional, I should have asked where they were from) – and delicious. Haysam also uses the paper bag cone trick, though puts the napkin inside to absorb some of the juices, which just made it a soggy bit of paper inside the plastic – I just peeled it all off and rewrapped in the plastic alone. I’d give this place points for having the largest shawarma – easily 50% bigger than the ones at either Demashk or Arabian Food – and at only 8 pesos.
Now, there’s another place that’s on my list to check out, but there’s a minor hitch. The place is a little middle eastern foods market, at the corner of Malabía and Cabrera, where I’ve bought many ingredients in the past. It’s a great little shop, and they serve up shawarma, but it seems only at lunchtime on Friday and Saturday – both days I rarely have time off to head that way. So, checking the place out will have to wait until a) I have a Friday or Saturday off when I feel like having shawarma, or b) someone decides to stop and pick me one up to go and delivers it over here. I’m slightly skeptical, only because the owner of the shop spent so much time assuring me that he has the best shawarma, that no one else in town remotely compares, and I shouldn’t try one anywhere else – and then admitting he’s never tried anyone else’s in town. I have no problem with an ego, and know many chefs who have big ones, but that was just silly.
Those four are the only places I had recommended that offer cheap, to go or quick bite shawarma in town. I’m sure there are more, and I’m happy to check out other suggestions. There are plenty of sit-down, nicer dining style restaurants, like Chef Iuseff or Hanan that offer shawarma on their menus, but we’re talking more platter style service than sandwich, and prices in the 25-30 peso range. I’d also had a small place called Al Amal recommended to me, but it turns out they’re no longer serving lunch except on Saturdays, and, at least based on the menu posted in their window, they don’t offer shawarma – I don’t know if it’s something they’ve simply stopped having on the menu, or something that is offered up as a daily special – it also looks more like a sit-down dining spot, despite being small.