Anonymity was not an option for me at Shawarma King.
A few weeks before my second visit to the newish Middle Eastern joint on Columbia Road NW, I’d written a negative capsule review of its chicken sandwich (The Feed, May 15). Shawarma King owner Butros Qumseya came to the City Paper offices demanding a meeting, saying I’d come to the restaurant at a bad time. I agreed to come down to the restaurant the next week around 11 a.m., so he could prove it to me.
When I show up a few minutes before 11 on the day we agreed on, Qumseya shakes my hand as if he is surprised to see me. I want to get eating, but Qumseya says the shawarma isn’t ready yet.
First, he insists, I have to see how the meat is cooked. We stand near the cash registers, watching the vertical gas burners blaze away on their highest setting. 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. 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. “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.”
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. Shortly after it opened in late December 2008, Qumseya says, Shawarma King received two visits from health inspectors. Both times the inspector went straight for his meat thermometer. Qumseya says he realized that “making it small and making it twice is better than making it big and turning down the heat.”
At our earlier meeting, Qumseya told me that he gets his meat shipped to the store. I thought that meant 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 and sighs.“In my country—in Bethlehem,” he says, “we didn’t buy meat from the wholesaler; we got it fresh every day from
A smaller bag in the fridge contains lamb, the fat of which he places between layers of beef to keep it moist. Most of his American customers, he says, request 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.
“This bag costs $1 for four pieces,” he says. “I could make 10 pieces of lavash for $1, but it wouldn’t taste as good. Makes more sense to buy.”
This is no small admission for Qumseya, who 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, Asaf, 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!”
Asaf 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 Asaf and then smiling apologetically at me.
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.
“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.”
Finally Qumseya directs my attention to the shawarma, both of which are bubbling with fat and marinade. “You want a sandwich?”
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, tahini, 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 tin foil and puts it on a panini press. When it’s done, he brings me my sandwich in a basket, and then he and Asaf huddle 15 feet away on the other side of the counter.
As I munch 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 refuses—not once, but twice—to accept my money. He’s been so sweet to me, and deep down I know that he really wants me to write something positive so he can hang it on the wall of his shop.
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!”
Shawarma King, 1654 Columbia Road NW, (202) 462-8330
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