Throughout the Arab world, there is one dish that remains iconic in our bustling food scene, the infamous shawarma. With its origins dating back to the Ottoman Empire, the dish truly stood the test of time and became a standard menu item across Arab restaurants.
Ilili Restaurant, NYC
Plucked out from the cusp of the Lebanese 1975 civil war was Philippe Massoud, a passionate chef who began his food journey while seeking refuge within the kitchen of his family owned Coral Beach Hotel. After moving to the US, he realized how none of the Lebanese food he tried lived up to his prized memories of the family dinners at the hotel and decided to take matters into his own hands.
Fast forward a couple of years and today, he is the proud owner of Illili Restaurant, a 10,000-square-foot luxurious restaurant home to wood-frame walls and high ceilings with honeycomb like patterns. Since 2007, it has become a crowd favorite among New Yorkers, serving up mezza style dining options especially their delicious shawarma sandwiches. Known to add a twist to conventional dishes, they are known for their caramelized duck shawarma topped with fig garlic sauce, lettuce, scallions, and pomegranate seeds. They also serve a delicious roasted lamb & beef shawarma with oven baked tomatoes, sumac parsley onion served with a side of tahini sauce.
Iyad’s Syrian Grill, Seattle
Hailing from Aleppo is Iyad Alati and his wife Safa Jneidi, a couple who left worn-torn Syria to start fresh and establish roots in the US. In 2017, they moved to Seattle’s suburbs and started a new life. Fast forward two years from then, the couple opened a food cart where they serve up delicious lamb, chicken and even vegetarian shawarma.
Bringing something different to the shawarma scene, the couple do not just rely on their Middle Eastern roots when creating their shawarma sandwiches, they also allow themselves the liberty of be influenced by western flavors and ingredients that are prominent in the Pacific Northwest. That is why, for example, unlike other shawarma joints, Iyad’s Syrian Grill uses unique ingredients in their sandwiches including mushrooms that add an earthy taste to their shawarma.
Moving from Amman to the Bay area, Jordanian chef Mohammad Abutaha always had a passion of bringing the flavors of his home and his culture all the way to the US. He jumped right in and ended up opening a pop up joint that serves up Jordanian-style street food to the masses.
The obvious star dish is the shawarma which Abutaha makes in his own special way. He marinates the chicken with yogurt and adds a seven-spice blend and makes sure to toast all his spices to add that smokey, tangy kick to the shawarma. When it comes to the bread, he ignores the typical saj and goes for the flour tortilla. The final signature step involves pressing the entire sandwich with a flat iron to give it that grilled charred taste. Today, his shop attracts lines and lines of customers that await his signature crispy shawarma sandwiches.
Furn Saj Bakery, LA
Behind LA’s Furn Saj Bakery are the Succar brothers, Mel and chef Charlie, who hail from Lebanon’s Bsharri. The two brought a taste of Lebanon all the way to the US by opening up Furn Saj Bakery In a Granada Hills strip mall back in 2013. The joint houses twin shawarma spits, one chicken and the other beef, both exuding rich flavors.
They are known for their juicy shredded beef and chicken and if you want to up the gastronomic experience, go for their house baked saj. With every sandwich, expect the classic toppings of pickled cucumbers, tomatoes and garlic sauce. Along with that, you will also get a side of pickled cucumbers, purple pickled turnip spears, and punchy pepperoncini.
Shawarma Guys, San Diego
Iraqi chef and owner Byran Zeto made a huge splash in the shawarma food scene after opening up the wildly popular Shawarma Guys food truck in South Park. Zeto opened up the truck a parking lot back in 2019. From the moment it opened its doors, the shawarma joint became an instant hit. Overnight, it went from having 100 orders a day to 400 and more as the days passed by. San Diegens hitting up the truck get to enjoy delicious shawarma, falafel and other comfort foods.
What makes Shawarma Guys unique is the fact that it serves their shawarma with Wagyu beef known for its deep marbling, meaning it houses more fat than the average slice of meat. This makes for beef shawarma sandwiches packed with deep rich flavors. If you are dropping it a visit be ready for a delicious Mediterranean dining experience.
All these eateries are linked by one common thing, the power of the Arab identity and how it is so strong that it manages to cross borders and create an impact all the way in the US.