Let's say you’re from New Orleans but living somewhere else. You are presented with a po-boy. Naturally, you are skeptical. You know that a po-boy is not merely a sandwich. It's a taste of home, and that taste comes through in the particulars.
The type of bread, the way it's dressed, the way the roast beef is cooked, the seafood is fried and the hot sausage is spiced. These are the things that add up to make regional specialties distinctive.
I recently learned how the same idea applies to shawarma, particularly the chicken shawarma wrap, that staple of Arabic restaurants around New Orleans and everywhere else for that matter.
I’d been eating the stuff all the time without giving it too much thought. It’s meat, sometimes cut from a vertical rotisserie, sometimes finished off on a griddle, usually wrapped in pita with lettuce and tomato and some kind of sauce. I like to get it at Byblos Market in Metairie at the deli counter, it’s a go-to at Cleo’s in the CBD, where they serve it 24/7, and it’s standard fare at many other Middle Eastern spots. It's fast, it's inexpensive, it's everywhere. But then I caught onto something different, a chicken sharwarma trimmed down to just a few ingredients and a whole lot of technique.
I happened upon this style at two shops - Shawarma on the Go, an eatery in an Uptown gas station on Magazine Street, and Shawarma on the Run, across the river in a Terrytown strip mall near the Oakwood Center. Those similar sounding names are both apt – these are quick-serve joints for a meal in a hurry. Each also has made a specialty of shawarma in the style that’s commonplace overseas but rare here. Certainly, I hadn’t seen it like this before.
What you get is a tight package of just a few ingredients – chicken cut from the dripping, self-marinating stack of the rotisserie, some thin pickle spears and a slather of toum – a heavenly, fluffy white garlic sauce. At these shops, the pita takes a back seat to a tortilla. This seemed odd at first, but I learned that the tortilla simulates a type of traditional flatbread, which is thinner and a bit more stretchy than the pita loaf.
Cut one of these wraps in half and it looks like a brick wall of differently textured chicken, charred and crunchy here, thicker and spice-stained there. It’s edged with thin tortilla, pocked with crunchy pickle and sluiced with that toum, a wonder ingredient for garlic lovers, made with just garlic, oil, lemon, a little egg white and the patience to blend them right.
My response after eating one was – where have they been hiding this? But that’s the thing about the food immigrants bring here from other cultures. The more you explore, the more regional variation comes through, the more the particulars add up and, maybe, the deeper your appreciation and gratitude grows for the diversity of flavor we get from people proudly offering a taste of their home heritage.
Picture yourself again as that New Orleans guy abroad, and think of someone laying a legit po-boy on you when you’re far from home. You wouldn’t let anyone tell you it was just another sandwich.
3720 Magazine St., 504-269-6427
Lunch and dinner daily
93 Terry Parkway, Terrytown, 504-373-6669
Lunch and dinner daily