Posted On: 10/01/2017
Nestled on a side street just off The Delmar Loop, Shawarma King’s sunny, laid-back atmosphere is the perfect setting for a lunch of fresh Middle Eastern fare. Spits of succulent, slow-roasted meats are visible behind the counter, and the sound of sharpening carving knives provides a lively soundtrack. Enticing cafes like this can be found along city streets all over the world – you could just as easily be in Istanbul, London or Amman as in St. Louis. In other words: This is legit.
Shawarma and Rice
Middle Eastern cuisine excels at using spices and sauces to elevate humble ingredients to sublime effect. Exhibit A: Shawarma King’s namesake dish. The meat – either chicken, beef or a combo – is bathed overnight in a vinegar-based house marinade laced with 17 hand-ground spices. Slow roasted and carved off the spit in thin slices, the meat is deeply flavorful and tender. Shawarma may be the star, but the bit players shine bright, too: soft, fluffy rice flavored with a medley of aromatic spices and a bright, crisp Arabic salad of diced tomatoes, cucumber and parsley with lemon juice and olive oil. While the shawarma was perfect on two visits, on one it was a tad dry – a small complaint remedied by the accompanying creamy tahini-garlic sauce.
Four years ago, I ate a transcendent wrap in London’s Borough Market that ruined all other falafel sandwiches for me. I’m happy to report my new favorite is a little closer to home. Shawarma King’s version starts with superior, freshly fried falafel. Crispy exteriors give way to soft, herbaceous clouds of perfection. The falafel, layered with pickles, cucumber and tomatoes and dressed with a drizzle of tahini and lemon juice, are wrapped snugly in a fresh pita, grilled for a little crunch. For an extra $2.50, you can add fries. Do it – crisp, salty and piping hot, they’re beyond delicious dipped into Shawarma King’s garlic sauce.
The highlight of parties is the ubiquitous groaning table of dips and finger food, and Shawarma King’s Veg Platter is a miniature of my dream party spread: Smooth hummus and smoky baba ghanoush, both topped with a pour of fruity olive oil and a dusting of puckery sumac, share the stage with savory falafel. Zesty tabbouleh and a few warak inab (grape leaves wrapped around creamy, herb-flecked rice and dressed in lemon and sumac) lighten things up. Each element is perfectly executed – even the accompanying pita is a dream – chewy, flavorful and an ideal vehicle for scooping up the delectable dips. The whole is utterly addictive in its variety of tastes and textures, but you could also order any of the elements as a standalone dish. The different varieties of hummus, especially the mosabaha that comes dressed in a special lemon sauce, are some of the best I’ve ever tasted. At only $9, the Veg Platter is the ideal way to sample a smattering of the best Shawarma King has to offer.
The service was attentive but a little slow during busier times, which might irk diners looking for an in-and-out option. I’d argue, though, that the restaurant’s commitment to house-made, fresh cuisine is worth a little wait. Along the same lines, a few menu items were unavailable on one visit.
571 Melville Ave., University City, 314.261.4833, Facebook: Shawarma King
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