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Before trying his hand at making shawarma, Alberto Sissi traveled to Turkey and a host of other countries in Europe to study recipes and techniques. He found that Turkish shops rub the beef with dried spices before stacking it on the rotating spit. In countries like Sweden, where Sissi’s friend owns Beirut Café, cooks take an alternative approach—opting to marinate the beef in a blend of vegetables and vinegar. “The meat is so tender in Northern Europe, they don’t need to use a lot of spices to give it a lot of flavor,” Sissi says.
Shawarma District, which opened near the World Bank in November, combines both strategies for a wow factor that makes it worth trying. To make the beef shawarma, Sissi submerges slices of cap-on, halal top-round beef in a bath of water, vinegar, and canola oil, where it can enjoy a good romance novel and a glass of white wine like the rest of us. The water bath also contains a blend of vegetables and herbs—green peppers, tomatoes, onion, carrots, cilantro, and parsley.
When the beef gets out of the bath, Sissi coats it with a blend of spices including cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, cloves, and salt. The shawarma can taste different from week to week or month to month. “If we get cinnamon this week from India, we might get it from Ethiopia the next week,” Sissi explains. “It changes the flavor profile, so I’m constantly tasting things. Especially bark-based spices. They’re constantly changing because there is not one location that can supply the whole U.S.”
He prefers the spices in his native Lebanon. “The spices that you have back home are so fresh,” he says. “When you store spices they lose a little bit of value, flavor, and aroma every day.”
Sissi grew up in a small village in northern Lebanon in a house with his parents, siblings, aunt, uncle, cousins, and grandmother. Every morning at 7 a.m., his grandmother would be up making bread. “Our farm had sheep and goats,” he recalls. “We made all these different kinds of cheeses. Everything was made from scratch, from the land.”
He moved to the U.S. in 1996, when he was 16 years old, and the importance of from-scratch cooking stuck with him. Sissi makes everything at Shawarma District from scratch except for the pita, which is delivered fresh from a local bakery on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
Diners can choose a pita wrap, rice bowl, or salad bowl as the base for their shawarma meal. In addition to beef shawarma there’s also chicken shawarma, falafel, and flash-fried cauliflower. “Anywhere around the world, chicken shawarma sells the most,” Sissi says. “But if you are a shawarma connoisseur, you eat beef shawarma.”
Shawarma District gives customers the freedom to customize their bowls or wraps. The only topping that costs extra are the grape leaves. Don’t miss the baba ghanoush inspired by Sissi’s grandmother’s recipe, pickled turnips, or garlic whip (toum). If you need guidance, stick to tradition: parsley, tomato, sumac onions, pickles, and tahini.
Sissi operated Shawafel on H Street NE for eight years before he opened Shawarma District. When his lease ran out, he couldn’t afford his landlord’s new price. That shop was 1580 square feet. Shawarma District is 680 square feet. “And we’re doing three times the numbers,” Sissi says, pointing to his pint-sized kitchen. It’s especially small compared to the kitchen he worked in at Zaytinya. Chef José Andrés employed Sissi for a decade.
Like most fast casual operators, Sissi is dreaming big. He hopes his next location will land in a neighborhood that can support late-night business because there’s nothing quite like a proper shawarma after last call.
Shawarma District is open Mondays through Fridays from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from noon to 6 p.m.
Shawarma District, 818 18th St. NW; (202) 846-7450; shawarmadistrict.com