Many years ago, when I was backpacking across the Middle East, I discovered there was a subject that divided its citizens. This time it wasn’t about religion, but rather the profoundly bitter and deep-seated debate over who makes the best shawarma. Even the spelling of shawarma can elicit confrontation, as the parody website Pan-Arabia Enquirer observed with this pitch-perfect headline: “Violence erupts at Middle East spelling bee over spelling of ‘shawarma.’”
According to Ali Qleibo, a cultural anthropologist, the word shawarma comes from the Turkish word çevirme, which means “turning.” Typically a shawarma is made from beef, chicken, or lamb and is prepared by rotating marinated meat for hours on a vertical spit. It’s most often served in pita bread and topped with yogurt or mayonnaise.
Thankfully for Portlanders, if you want to engage in the timeless tradition of bickering about which country makes the best shawarma, you can sample a wide range of options from Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, and Turkey in a single city block of downtown Portland. I call it “Shawarma Square” because of the remarkable fact that between SW Washington and Alder on one side, and SW 9th and 10th on the other, there are 10 shawarma food carts. For less than 10 bucks, you can buy a shawarma, a soda, and a baklava. Even better, a trip to Portland’s shawarma square won’t land you on any TSA no-fly list.
A good place to start is Cart Istanbul on SW 9th. Started two months ago by Turkish employees at Intel, Cart Istanbul features a prominent signboard reminding customers that Turks invented the shawarma, which curiously, they now call a doner sandwich.
I loved the warm complimentary tea, but the doner sandwich ($5.99) was boring, with Costco-like rubbery bread and far too much mayonnaise. The meat—a beef and lamb combination—was average, and could’ve used more marinating (as well as heat). For a few dollars more, order the Adana kebab sandwich ($7), a long piece of minced beef that was juicy with just the right amount of tanginess.
A few steps away is the Egyptian-themed Gyro Place. It’s cash only and they’re funny about giving receipts, but for $7, you can get a lamb shawarma sandwich so massive you’ll be thankful this place has bar stools. The lamb was decent, but had curious, unwelcome additions like chopped carrots and far too much white sauce. The real standout was their chicken ($7), though it seemed to be generously seasoned with a packet of Pakistani chicken tikka mix. This place is sort of a hodgepodge: a food cart run by Iraqi refugees copying an Egyptian style of shawarma and using an Orientalist décor that they think, perhaps correctly, Americans want to eat and see.
Down a little further is Aybla, one of Portland’s most famous shawarma stands with five locations across town. The bread was crisp with the meat doused in delicious tahini, a nod to the owner’s Syrian roots. But their beef ($7) was bland and sliced way too thin. Their beef kafta sandwich ($6) was perfectly balanced and served with a delightful amount of parsley. It’s not technically a shawarma, but if you’re going to eat at Aybla, get the kafta.
Noah’s Halal on SW Washington reminds me of my student days in Egypt. Their sandwiches are long, served on crepe-thin bread, and can be held with one hand—perfect if you’re in a Cairo cab and need one hand free to emphatically emphasize to the driver that no, Will Smith and Prince Charles have not converted to Islam. While I enjoyed their chicken shawarma, the beef was far superior. All their sandwiches are pressed on the grill, a technique, that according to the owner, is used in his native Iraq.
But the best shawarma I tried—by a long shot—is the chicken shawarma ($8) at Sam’s Saj. Sam bakes all his own bread in house on a dome metal griddle called a “saj.” He also adds thin, fresh, tangy green peppers, but the main reason to visit are the French fries inserted into each shawarma—a uniquely Lebanese touch.
For Sam, who was born and raised in New York, this addition reminds him of childhood visits to Lebanon, where a bite of a shawarma would contain a bit of the US and the Middle East.
Sam loves hearing the surprised reactions about the French fries inside. “In Lebanon, we have a saying,” he says. “I love you like I love French fries in my shawarma.”
Zahir Janmohamed is the co-host of the Racist Sandwich podcast.
Follow him @raceandfood