Shawarma, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Sha-war-ma: the tip of my tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate.
I’m obsessed. In fact my brother and I once hatched a plan to start our own shawarma business by hiring away Alejandro, the Mexican guy who oversees the shawarma station at our favorite place to score it (hint: think “Broadway”). But we couldn’t agree about whether to offer Alejandro equity. I said yes, my brother said no—“Why would we give him a stake, you idiot?!”
For the uninitiated, shawarma, loosely defined, consists of chicken, turkey, lamb or beef (and sometimes combinations thereof) coated with oil and a multitude of spices, layered on a vertical skewer topped with animal fat (and sometimes onions and tomatoes), and gradually slow-cooked on a rotating electric grill. Shawarma may be served by itself on a plate or on bread—sometimes a baguette, but usually pita or its big cousin, lafa—and it’s often topped with tahini, pickles, red cabbage slaw and hot sauce. Shawarma is a popular fast food in many parts of the world, most notably the Middle East and the Mediterranean, and some of the best examples of it in New York City can be found at glatt kosher restaurants in Midwood, home to a large Sephardic Jewish community.
On a recent visit to Midwood, I was dismayed to find that my favorite spot for shawarma, Jerusalem Steakhouse, had stopped serving its stellar lamb-turkey combo because of a lingering equipment malfunction. Even more alarming was my discovery, after much questioning, that the management was in no rush to fix the problem. Happily, I came upon an excellent alternative a few blocks away at Pita Off the Corner, a bright-yellow, counter-service-only eatery that’s been a neighborhood stalwart for eight years. Pita Off the Corner looks like what it is: an independently owned glatt kosher, fast-food joint that caters to an Orthodox Jewish and ethnically Middle Eastern clientele. Give-away touches include prayer books, an enormous sign spelling out the name, address and phone number of its kosher poultry supplier and a flat-screen TV blaring Israeli music videos and soccer matches.
More compelling from an atmosphere standpoint is the trio of hundred-pound skewers of chicken shawarma glistening behind the counter, which gives you a sense of the volume this place does. In fact, on Saturday night, when the store opens at sundown after the Sabbath ends, lines snake out the door. And, make no mistake, volume is important in this business, because if the shawarma isn’t moving, the outer meat gets crusty from over-exposure to the grill heat. Granted, some shawarmaniacs, such as my brother, actually like some slightly chewy, crunchy meat in the mix, but I prefer my shawarma tender and juicy throughout. Pita Off the Corner does not disappoint. Chef-owner Siliva Yohanen uses only glatt kosher dark meat from baby Cornish hens flavored with “at least 10 spices” (sorry, that’s as much as I could get out of her) and suffused with beef or lamb fat.
While I could spend my remaining word count on the optional salad bar fixins, I’ll cut to the taste: All you need to make a perfect meal here is a plate of Yohanen’s shawarma topped with Jackson Pollock–like drizzlings of her equally first-rate tahini.