My recent visit to Shawarma King, one of the new Middle Eastern sandwich joints in Adams Morgan, finally humbled me. As I sat there, chewing on yet another mediocre shawarma sandwich, its beef dry and its flavors as much sour as savory, I decided that I must be missing something. Or that my palate is too Americanized to appreciate this ubiquitous street food.
I mean, with the exception of the Lebanese Butcher and Restaurant in Falls Church, I don’t think I’ve had a shawarma in this area that makes me want to stand atop the Washington Monument and shout its praises. Many of them, I find, are too dry (likely from spinning on the rotisserie for hours without enough fat to keep them moist) or too sour (from a marinade that can include yogurt, lemon and even pomegranates) or too underseasoned or served in stale pitas. Or all of the above.
With my visit to the Shawarma King, it finally dawned on me that I am the only constant in all my bleh experiences at shawarma joints. Maybe my expectations are all wrong. Maybe my palate is calibrated for the liberal amounts of seasonings that Western chefs use? Maybe sour should be the dominate flavor?
But here’s one thing I know: The meat should never be dry. One manager of a shawarma shop in town told me that lamb in the Middle East is much fattier than the stuff available in the United States. (I suspect the same is true for beef, too, given how U.S. cattlemen are now producing leaner meat.) The two meats are (or should be) the starring ingredients in your shawarma sandwich, assuming you don’t order a chicken shawarma.
Fat, of course, equals flavor, which might explain some of what’s missing in my shawarma experience. But even if there were more fat, I’d still miss the seasonings. Sure, I could just pile more toppings onto the sandwich to add flavor, but then I’d just be drowning out the main ingredient, not complementing it.
Help me out here, you shawarma experts. Am I off base with my harsh assessments of our local offerings or do most of our shawarma shops just skate by on mediocrity?