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Shwarma- Best Of, and Jerusalem, Garlic 'n Lemons, Falafel King, etc., plus Lamb Kabobs

O.K. i readily admit it; i'm late to the shwarma party. All these years i have been ordering lamb kabob instead because I thought shwarma would be a) ground and plain and b) dry. So, foolish me. The spicy chicken shwarma wrap at Garlic 'n Lemons has opened up my palate. So I have 3 questions:

- Have you tasted the Garlic 'n Lemons spicy chicken shwarma but you prefer another version, and if so, where plse.?

- Who has side dishes as good as G 'n L, or more unusual?for instance, the mouska salad at Azama and GnL, the avocado salad at Azama,and the 'couscous' salad at GnL(this is the link to my GnL review, mentioning the sides i loved): http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/716975

- Nadeau wrote up Jerusalem Pita and Grill in Jan. How does their shwarma compare?

and

is their "laffa" bread the same as Garlic 'n Lemons' saj bread? If not, what is it like plse?I am always intrugued by unusual flat breads- like the one used for wraps at Sofra and the Tunisian place in Camb.

- and lastly, I may as well ask a related question:Lamb Kabobs: who actually puts theirs in a flavorful marinade that makes theirs 'the best'? i just have not been really wowed by any that i've had: fordee's. sami's,rami's, falafel king, azama, demo's. They're good, but plain, and it's always the accompanying sauce that gives them punch. I can't remember what i thought of them at sabra in harv sq. last time i was there..........

Thanks much for your help.

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Sofra
1 Belmont St, Cambridge, MA 02138

Azama Grill
54 Harvard Ave, Boston, MA 02134

Garlic 'n Lemons
133 Harvard Ave, Boston, MA 02134

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  1. The related but unasked question is, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, what do you mean by shwarma?

    In my experience the original shwarma (Arabic) /doner kebab (Turkish) / gyro (Greek) should be made of marinated and spiced slices of lamb, heavily interleaved with a healthy quantity of lamb fat. The result is pressed, placed on a heavy strong skewer and slowly rotated to yield a result that is simultaneously gently cooked at the core and singed to yield an intensely browned flavorful taste at the fat-laden periphery, the Maillard reaction. To achieve that last effect, the external heat source must produce a temperature of at least 300 and preferably 500 degrees farenheit.

    All names ((shwarmer/doner kebab/gyro) should share those essential properties. Unfortunately the Greek version, most commonly available in the US, the Kronos gyro, has completely ruined the market for this product by adulterating its taste. The Kronos gyro is prepared either as spam on a stick or spam on a grill. Instead of slicing meat and fat and threading it together through the spit, Kronos grinds it into a spiced mess, a spam-like mold, that can be cooked in a variety of ways, whose result is remote from the original. Since the meat components have been rendered unidentifiable by virtue of spamification, the typical Greek Kronos-like gyro can be composed of any combination of soy, pork, beef, poultry, devoid of the lambiness which imho is the essential taste of the dish.

    Kronos was able to get away with this travesty because the Greek version, the gyro, was often served with fresh sliced onions and thick garlic-flavored yogurt. These competing strong tastes overwhelmed the original aroma of grilled lamb, reducing the necessity of making fresh lamb the star of the show.

    The other adulteration of s/d/g (my abbreviation) occurred in Israel. On the whole, there is not as big a market for lamb in Israel as there is in the neighboring Muslim countries. I suspect that Jews of Eastern European origin do not enjoy the gamy taste of lamb. Furthermore the hyperbolic health fat-phobia that has dominated much Euro-American cooking in general discouraged consumption of the the fat-laden genuine original. Lamb has also been more expensive in Israel than in the Arab world. The result is that lamb disappeared as the meat of choice. It was replaced by a combination of lamb and beef, beef alone, turkey (usually thigh meat), or chicken. None of these other meats can produce the intense flavor of freshly grilled lamb fat. The Israeli version of shwarma could not get away with burying the product in garlic-yogurt, because of the requirements of kashrut. So on the whole, despite the ubiquity of fat-reduced poultry, the essential meat component of the Israeli shwarma is superior to the Kronos-crippled gyro sold in the US.

    Dietary restrictions also explain the distinctly Greek use of pork in their gyros, a practice unacceptable in Muslim and Jewish cooking.

    As a result in the US our appreciation of this product has been undermined by the changes that have occurred to it over the decades.

    I have eaten s/d/g in the course of half a century in Istanbul, Beirut, and Jerusalem, as well as in various greasy spoons in Chicago's Greek town. IMHO the best version of this taste was to be had in the fast-food stands near the movie theaters in Beirut's Martyr Square (the center of the city's downtown) before the Lebanese Civil War.

    Nothing I have ever tasted in Boston compares.

    In my next posting I will comment in detail on the strengths and weaknesses of what I have had in Boston. On the whole the results do not compare to what I have had in the past. but I think that the Family Restaurant in Brookline serves not bad doner kebab, but not great either. There is a Lebanese place on Mass Ave. in Cambridge, near the Harvard Law School which makes its own shwarma on a spit. It looks OK from the outside, but the result is dry and tasteless. I think because of fat-phobia the product lacks the essential layer of lamb fat. It is over-marinated (and consequently dried out in the process), and their spit unit is not hot enough to create the Maillard reaction. I will get the name of this place and add it to the discussion.

    25 Replies
    1. re: VivreManger

      The place on Mass ave is Wrapro. Agreed that it's not as good as it could be. Try the lamb shwarma at Falafel Corner in Harvard Square. More of the fat that you speak of. Having had pretty good lamb schwarma in Jerusalem, I'm not sure I agree with your thinking on Israeli versions.

      1. re: newhound

        Thanks for identifying Wrapro. By the way they also promote their own knafe, the Arab version of Danish pastry. It should be composed of baked shredded wheat with white soft melted cheese (haloumi perhaps), and hot sweet syrup. But having seen what they did to shwarma, I hestitated to try anything else there.

        A propos Israeli shwarma I recognize that among all the varieties offered in Israel, lamb is still available. It may be possible to find in Jerusalem (even in the western part of the city) a decent version of the dish in that original form, but Israeli chefs have perverted the dish with poultry, particularly turkey, and since then it can never be the same.

        While I recognize the necessity and value of creativity and invention in cooking I am still a purist when it comes to naming dishes. If you want to make a shwarma-like product out of something other than lamb, call it something else. The Israeli poultry version could be called, Poulma, the Greek pork version, Porma, and the Kronos version Sparma.

        On your recommendation I will give Falafel Corner a try. Where exactly in the Square is it? The other Boston reputedly lamb shwarma that I would like to try is at Sofra, but I have read some mixed reports. Even more alarming is the picture of it on their own website. It depicts a grey sliced meat (to be sure not spam), but lacking a grilled brown edge, smothered in thick yogurt sauce. That is not encouraging.

        On that last point let me be clear, I have no objection to the combination of yogurt and lamb. It is one of the great flavor creations of Middle Eastern and Indian cooking, but in the case of s/d/g it should not be allowed to overwhelm the taste of seared lamb flesh and fat. The issue is not yogurt as such, but the ratio of yogurt to lamb.

        1. re: VivreManger

          Wow this is shaping up to be a remarkable thread

          1. re: Luther

            I am not at all an expert but I will second Family restaurant as the place whose lamb I prefer - their doner wrap sandwich is always moist, tender and flavorful. On the chicken front, I find Garlic n Lemons spicy chicken schwarma with garlic sauce the best I've found. In general, Family's food is very good and extremely well-priced. Their vegetables, particularly at lunch on their steam table, are exceptional.

            1. re: teezeetoo

              I'll third the enjoyment of the doner at Brookline Family. Not sure exactly how it's made.

              -----
              Brookline Family Restaurant
              305 Washington St, Brookline, MA 02445

          2. re: VivreManger

            I agree....It's all about the lamb.
            Good lamb doesn't need to be flavored with a marinade or spices. You might as well use beef kebabs.
            Had some suprisingly pretty tasty lamb kebabs at that restaurant Jasmine Taste of Persia on Mt. Auburn St. in Watertown recently.

            1. re: Infomaniac

              i completely disagree w/ you about marinating lamb and i would bet you don't really mean that, when you think about it. lamb has aways been my preferred meat of all of them and a good marinade is a great thing.

              1. re: opinionatedchef

                I always mean what I say.

                To me, if it's lamb I buy from Blood Farm in Groton I want to taste it, and I have a very basic madinade as I stated two years ago here. http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/664455

                If I buy the lamb at Market Basket which to me has very little taste, I'll marinate it one way, and that's also in the link about a recipe that alwayscooking posted which I gave a shout out for.

            2. re: VivreManger

              Vivre, authenticity seems pretty important to you. Given that I also l like my Israeli falafels with a few french fries in them, take my rec's with a grain of salt. I'm pretty ecumenical in my tastes. That said, you might try Farm Grill in Newton as well. Sofra has an outstanding lamb schwarma sandwich, but it's totally unlike what you are considering authentic. Theirs is made with meltingly tender braised lamb.

              -----
              Sofra
              1 Belmont St, Cambridge, MA 02138

              1. re: newhound

                That lamb sandwich at Sofra is awesome.

                -----
                Sofra
                1 Belmont St, Cambridge, MA 02138

              2. re: VivreManger

                I had a chance to try the both lamb and chicken shwarma at Falafel Corner in Harvard Square. It was, in my unqualified opinion, pretty good. We ate in the store and also had the grape leaves and a bird's nest for dessert.

                It was good stuff. The lamb was tasty, not dried out. The cucumber + bean salad under the grape leaves was topped with feta crumbles and tasty mint leaves mixed in.

                Disclaimer: I've never eaten Shwarma in anyplace more exotic than Toronto, Boston, Chicago and Minneapolis.

            3. re: VivreManger

              A few years ago I had a nice fatty spit cooked lamb gyro at Farm Grill, served with a side of attitude.

              1. re: VivreManger

                vm, you are MY kind of CH. thank you so much for taking the time to write all this.

                1. re: VivreManger

                  By the way, the price and lack of use of lamb in Jerusalem is less health driven than you think. One of the main drivers is a little known complication in making kosher lamb. The best meat of the lamb is his leg, but to make it kosher, all the major veins of the leg must be removed with a surgeons precision. While this issue also exisits with beef, the ratio of best meat of the creature to vein removal is decidedly better, thus making the labor costs of such efforts far more feasble and budget friendly. In the US, this issue makes it nearly impossible to find kosher leg of lamb outside of NYC....kosher producers just ship the shanks and sell the rest of the lamb leg to un-kosher producers rather than deal with the fuss.

                  1. re: InmanSQ Girl

                    The same problem exists with porterhouse/t-bone steaks. Rib steaks, I believe, by contrast avoid the vein problem.

                    1. re: InmanSQ Girl

                      And on the prevalance-of-turkey issue-- I believe that turkey is a relatively easy food source to cultivate in Israel, and IIRC, there have been some national initiatives to do so. I tried to research this more but when you search turkey and Israel, google give you lots about Israeli-Turkish relations.

                    2. re: VivreManger

                      "The Israeli version of shwarma could not get away with burying the product in garlic-yogurt, because of the requirements of kashrut". I was just in Israel a couple of weeks ago and tons of shwarma places, all with yogurt based sauces. Yes, there certainly are kosher places too, that don't do that. Rami's in Brookline is kosher, and so don't offer yogurt sauces either.

                      Keep in mind that the vast majority of Israelis do not keep kosher, and freely eat meat and dairy together, as well as eat shellfish. Pork.....not so much that I saw. Lamb.....YES!

                      1. re: Science Chick

                        Yes most Jews in Israel are not religiously observant, but a significant part of the market is strictly observant and another part of the market is sentimentally observant. In other words it would be difficult to make money with a mass market non-kosher product as a standard readily available street food. With the growth of the Russian quasi-Jewish market the demand for non-kosher foods has grown, but that still remains a niche market.

                        Sure in Haifa and north Tel-Aviv with a significant secular population one could sell lamb and yogurt shawarma, but typically the best shawarma (along iwth felafel) stands in most Israeli cities are in lower middle class open public market and central bus station areas where the product has to sell fast and appeal to the greatest number.

                        A Sofra shawarma would not make it there.

                        -----
                        Sofra
                        1 Belmont St, Cambridge, MA 02138

                      2. re: VivreManger

                        VIVRE, one thing i'm a little confused about. can one visually tell if the Boston area shwarma looks 'right ' when it's on the spit? from your posts, it sounds like sometimes you can tell and sometimes not. Do you expect to see fat dripping down? isn't the outside/first layer usually more well done than the interior? and why wouldn't you want the inner layer? does anyone ever baste theirs or is that just supposed to be handled by the desired layered fat? thanx for the education. when i go try Jerusalem (NO Chs have posted on it here; strange) and others in Allston soon, i want to go in guns loaded(more informed that is).

                        1. re: opinionatedchef

                          The Wikipedia article to which I referred earlier begins with an excellent description. "Shawarma is made by alternately stacking strips of fat and pieces of seasoned meat (beef, lamb or marinated chicken) on a stickā€”an onion or tomato is sometimes placed at the top of the stack for additional flavoring. The meat is roasted slowly on all sides as the spit rotates in front of, or over, a flame for hours (see rotisserie). Traditionally a wood fire was used; currently, a gas flame is common. While specialty restaurants might offer two or more meat selections, some establishments have just one skewer."

                          The best should have a crown of onion or tomato at the top, above a layer of fat. Layers of fat should be layered throughout the skewer and should be visible. The smell of seared lamb fat should suffuse the air. The interlayering of white fat and darker flesh should be prominent. The sight of browned meat should be clear at the point of near contact with the heating element. I suspect that the shawarma would be better in the Arab areas, perhaps within or just outside the Old City walls near the Damascus gate. You might have luck in Mahane Yehuda, but I think Pourma has taken over there. I don't know Tel-Aviv as well, but again Jaffa which has a lot of Arab restaurants and the remnants of its Arab population might offer better shawarma choices.

                          1. re: VivreManger

                            thanks for that info. you realy have seen layers of fat on the shwarma spits in our area?( and just fyi, i meant Jerusalem Pita and Grill in Brookline, reviewed by Nadeau in Jan but which no CH has mentioned that I can find.)

                            1. re: opinionatedchef

                              When you do a CH search, try clicking the button to expand it beyond the past 12 months - here are two earlier threads:
                              http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/589938
                              http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/657438

                              1. re: Allstonian

                                thanx much for that reminder, A.

                                didn't sound good back then in' 09 but nadeau reviewed it positively in 1/11 and he doesn't usually like crummy places.... but if no CHs are posting about it, I think I'll skip it. Besides, it seems v expensive and i'm looking for flavor, not kosher.

                              2. re: opinionatedchef

                                My fat layer recommendation was in response to your request for advice about Jerusalem. I have seen nothing like that in the Boston area, but perhaps this thread will encourage some local restauranteur.

                                1. re: VivreManger

                                  Yes, yes, but I'm disappointed you're here, posting on CH at nearly 5:30 on a night when you promised us you'd be at Winsor eating hotpot and reporting back (using the P word). Get thee to Chinatown, Satan (or, at least, VivreManger).

                                  To the mystified (if they care): http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/776638 .

                        2. The problem I have with GnL's scwarma is that they only use a single pita. Real schwarma places use a double pita wrap.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: jgg13

                            Ha! I will offer the standard riposte: not if it's handmade and thick enough.

                            http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                            1. re: jgg13

                              i'm often slow to the take but i got this one, j.

                            2. Garlic 'n Lemons has a very good sauce. That's what makes their food stand out. The shwarma itself is otherwise typical. I've not found any great difference in meat taste from place to place. As for other than chicken, I like the spicy chicken but it is still chicken and lamb isn't.

                              You should try Esperia Grill in Brighton center to see if you like their kabobs and gyro. I like their food; it tastes like it's made in small batches.

                              If you want a good flat bread, pick up an afghan bread from Quebec at Haymarket. They arrive fresh and soft for Friday - and then are sold progressively older all the next week, so buy on Fri or Sat. Totally better fresh.

                              -----
                              Esperia Grill
                              344 Washington St, Brighton, MA 02135

                              Haymarket
                              Blackstone St, Boston, MA

                              Garlic 'n Lemons
                              133 Harvard Ave, Boston, MA 02134

                              5 Replies
                              1. re: lergnom

                                yes, i intend to try esperia, thnx. great moniker btw.

                                1. re: opinionatedchef

                                  I can write with both hands at the same time, one as the mirror ... thus ...

                                  The bechamel at Esperia is velvety in the mousaka & pastistio. Their roast chicken is very lemony and their Greek roasted potatoes are the best I've had around here.

                                  Garlic 'n Lemons seems to me to mix a more Armenian spicing with Lebanese food.

                                  -----
                                  Garlic 'n Lemons
                                  133 Harvard Ave, Boston, MA 02134

                                  1. re: lergnom

                                    Funny, and all along I was thinking 'legerdemain' , which actually is appropriate per your self- description. But then i also just realized that finally someone has done the backwords word trick. finally. I actually have looked for that in monikers for years but i have never found an example of it before. Ah, it must be the nancy drew in me......

                                    i will be following your suggestions at esperia soon; thnx. i'll be the one walking in as mcslim is walking out.

                                2. re: lergnom

                                  That bread is also available at Russo's and Arax.

                                  1. re: lergnom

                                    o.k. mong, so we did get to Esperia today and I owe you one BIGGG merci! I'm putting it in its own thread- to call attention to them, but needless to say, both the pork gyro and the moussaka were excellent. Actually, best moussaka i've had other than my own; what a treat!

                                    -----
                                    Esperia Grill
                                    344 Washington Street, Boston, MA

                                  2. I imagine you could include tacos al pastor in this discussion, too. Would love to hear about places that do this really well. Taco Loco and Lupita in Somerville are two traditional ones, I believe. Most that I've had locally, like at Angela's, are a kind of simulation (though not necessarily terrible): grilled with some chopped pineapple thrown in, not vertical rotisserie cooked. I tend to think it's not going to be great unless you specialize in it, and that approach is not popular at Mexican-genre restaurants around here.

                                    My favorite lamb versions are at Brookline Family, Farm Grill and Falafel Corner (easily their best dish -- ironically, their falafel is really bad). I'm also a fan of the turkey shwarma at Rami's, and the pork gyros at Zo.

                                    http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                                    -----
                                    Brookline Family Restaurant
                                    305 Washington St, Brookline, MA 02445

                                    14 Replies
                                    1. re: MC Slim JB

                                      Wha? I know for a fact that I have seen folks slice meat off a vertical rotisserie for my tacos al pastor at the Harvard Street Anna's. Do they not do this at every location?

                                        1. re: MC Slim JB

                                          Kind of uncool to randomly dis them by name, then. Especially if you're doing so incorrectly.

                                          1. re: Jenny Ondioline

                                            Um, who's dissing them? I've never been one of the many vehement critics of Anna's here; my attitude toward them could best be described as indifferent. I'm glad to hear they have some things that some Hounds seriously like. I haven't tried their tacos al pastor or green chili pork, will give those a shot sometime. I never saw anyone order anything but a super-mega-burrito there, and as I have often said, I'm not really a fan of those anywhere.

                                            Are you maybe thinking that by Angela's, I meant Anna's? Because by Angela's, I mean Angela's Cafe in Eastie. I love that place; it's my favorite Mexican in Greater Boston. And I like their tacos al pastor, even if they're not doing them on a vertical rotisserie. As I said, non-traditional doesn't necessarily mean terrible.

                                            http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                                            1. re: MC Slim JB

                                              Jenny, MC said Angela's, not Anna's. Oddly, though, youre both right. I've had pastor at Anna's, where they have the spit but often make your tacos from a bin of the pork that's pre-sliced and waiting in their assembly line.

                                              1. re: newhound

                                                This is not a promising indicator. I have dissed the shwarma at the Sami's truck and South End Pita for pre-slicing: that's clearly a bad idea.

                                                Does Anna's ever serve their tacos al pastor fresh-sliced off the rotisserie? Is timing involved, e.g., do you have to go at some off-peak hour to get them freshly cut?

                                                http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                                                1. re: MC Slim JB

                                                  well, this is odd.i have rarely had an opposite reaction to a place you have reviewed. We tried Falafel Corner in harv sq at 9:30 tonight after a film. the lamb shwarma was pre-sliced, sitting in a hotel pan type warmer. it was major grey and tough but very ample.(maybe because the friendly egyptian guys there seemed to get a kick from my [limited] arabic.)

                                                  the babaganooj was way inferior to azama's and garlic 'n lemons (both of which are smoky rich) and was not smoked. But , get this, i really liked the falafel ! so much more than that at the other spots I've tried. Soft textured and very appealingly spiced.

                                                  OT, because i did not ask about pastor in my OP, but the Anna's in Davis Sq. is the location where i have had v good pastor and chile verde pork.

                                              2. re: MC Slim JB

                                                You're right, I did completely misread Angela's for Anna's -- possibly because I've never even noticed that Angela's had pastor on the menu. My apologies.

                                                1. re: Jenny Ondioline

                                                  Not at all: I always welcome suggestions, would love to find something that had been hiding under my nose. Any thoughts on which Anna's outlets are better than others?

                                                  http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                                                  1. re: MC Slim JB

                                                    The only ones I've ever eaten at are Harvard Street and Beacon Street in Brookline, and in my experience, Harvard is consistently better than Beacon.

                                                    As Newhound says, there's a bin of pre-sliced pastor on the line, but at the Harvard location, I've found that -- especially if it's not busy -- if I ask them to make my tacos al pastor with meat fresh off the spit, they will. Two or three or four of those and a glass of horchata make for a lovely lunch.

                                          2. re: Jenny Ondioline

                                            hmmm, pastor at anna's. that and the green chile pork are consistently excellent there and the only things we get. i always think that people who knock anna's must not have tasted these 2 things there.

                                            1. re: opinionatedchef

                                              The different locations vary wildly in terms of quality and turnover, which probably accounts for a good deal of the difference in opinion.

                                          3. re: MC Slim JB

                                            this is a bit confusing. 'lamb versions' refers to lamb kabob or shwarma? if the former, are any of them marinated? if the latter, out of what pool?does the pool include the places in the thread title?

                                            1. re: opinionatedchef

                                              I thought we were talking about shwarma/doner/gyros here, so that's what I meant, didn't distinguish between them. Kabob-kabobs are generally cut into chunks, then marinated, then grilled; the others are marinated, layered on the spit with alternating leaves of fat, rotisseried, then sliced off.

                                              http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                                          4. By far the best shawarma I have had in Boston was at Sabb's on Route 1 in Norwood.. watching them cut it off the vertical rotisserie's is great lunchtime experience..

                                            I have not seen an al pastor setup close to how I ate them in Mexico City, but I do enjoy Anna's version of it. I have not explored East Boston's taquerias well enough, but my fave has been Tacos Lupita near Porter. Hartford has some good Mexican street food as well if you are passing through - I love the food court at La Mercado on Park St.

                                            1 Reply
                                            1. re: grant.cook

                                              Sabb's is legit! Both chicken and lamb right off the spit. I have to say, I'm not a fan of lamb. But here it's good enough to be palatable for me so I'll have it every now and then. Maybe it's because they blend in slices of beef to mellow the lamb. After all, they are also a halal meat market so they need to use some of that extra "aged" beef. Since their shawarma doesn't go flying off the spit, it can be dry on occasion. Their pickled condiments really help make the sandwich.