I’ve long been baffled by two things: Why are there so many gyro/shawarma carts in the Southwest Alder Street food cart pod, and more interestingly, why do almost all have a burger on the menu?
I was interested in trying each of these “shawarma burgers,” but daunted to go it alone. However, I found inspiration in Bill Oakley’s fast food reviews on Instagram, which have garnered thousands of fans in just a few short months. Best known for his work on The Simpsons (particularly the one with the “steamed hams”), Oakley doesn’t just do fast food reviews for the lulz; his heart is truly in it. I was delighted when he agreed to help me wade through Shawarma Square (the food cart pod on SW 9th & Alder) to find the best burger.
To be consistent, we ordered our burgers with everything on them: American cheese, lettuce and tomato, mayo, and ketchup. Some came with onions and/or garlic sauce. Fries and a drink were included with most, and every blessed one was a screaming deal at $8 or less.
The burger at Noah Halal was the first we tried, which set a very high bar (to the detriment of nearly all other burgers we tasted). Our expectations started pretty low, so we were floored when well-seasoned fries and a delicious flavorful burger, handmade from fresh kofta meat, showed up. In fact, burger connoisseur Oakley told me a week later he still “remembers it fondly”—a ringing endorsement!
Moving along, we found the burger at Kafta House to be unremarkable, with a slight and unexpected gamey (lamb?) taste—though this added an iota of interest for Oakley, who also liked the bun and toppings. However, for me, it didn’t really mitigate the high school cafeteria burger experience. Meanwhile, Oakley found Fattoush’s cheeseburger to be “perfunctory,” though we both agreed that decent toppings and good char (substantially enhanced by the flavorful drippings of other meats cooked on the flat top) boosted the ranking of this frozen patty.
Oakley deemed the burgers at Persia Sofreh and Shawarma Express “sub-hospital” and “cardboard-like,” and confirmed some of our preconceived notions about shawarma cart burgers. To be fair, Shawarma Express’ owner’s face visibly fell when I ordered the burger, so he may have been intentionally punishing us for our wrong choice.
Our second-favorite burger was at Gyro Place, who, like Noah Halal, served up a patty of fresh beef rather than a frozen commodity puck. There was a generous second slice of cheese and creamy tzatziki sauce rather than mayo, and it came on a toasted Kaiser roll. Bonus: A person in line asked, Chief Wiggum-style, for a “jye-roh.”
After exhausting our options at Shawarma Square, we decided to expand our survey to the Southwest 5th Avenue cart pod as well. The burger at our wild card cart Medo (a halal sandwich joint billing itself as “American” food rather than a shawarma cart) was very decent and suitably wrapped for travel. But after eight other burgers without it, the inclusion of yellow mustard was almost a shock. Is this all it takes to make a burger “American”? Are we such a simple people??
Alibaba was unusual in that it served the only burger that came in a top-split bun. The flavor was fine, but the texture was strangely bouncy, and had a cartoonish, 3D-printed appearance. “This is like the #1 burger in Czechoslovakia,” Oakley determined. I concurred with this apt assessment, though I have admittedly never eaten a hamburger in Eastern Europe.
Because of recent racist bullshit toward a Black woman by the owner of the cart, we felt conflicted about trying the burger at Small Pharaoh’s, but ultimately decided to be stone-cold objective about it. Oakley found it “one step up from Kafta because it wasn’t gamey” and I was almost relieved to find it unremarkable. It fell squarely in the middle. There was a sprinkling of diced tomato, a few haphazard scraps of onion and lettuce littering the patty, and it came seasoned with a generous pinch of who gives a fuck.
Coming into this important project, we assumed these particular burgers would be throwaway items cobbled together from frozen Costco patties, but the experiment was educational for both of us. Don’t overlook the burger on a shawarma cart menu! Regular working stiffs looking for a fast, regular-ass burger without a bunch of frizzled onions and bacon guacamole on top could do much worse than hitting the shawarma carts, and in a few cases, you could scarcely do much better.