Shawarma Spot

Middle Eastern
$$$$ ($14 and under)
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Editorial Review

When after-hours cravings hit, this 18th Street joint offers Adams Morgan revelers the option of protein-packed street food.

"I felt that the late-night crowd needed something better than pizza dough and cheese, and you can't eat falafel every day," said Nizar Bagig, referring to two nearby establishments that serve into the wee hours. The 29-year-old Tunisian opened Shawarma Spot in January with Iraqi native Natheer Ahmed, 30, where M'Dawg Haute Dogs used to be. "Shawarma is like fast food, but it's healthy fast food," Bagig says.

The jampacked sandwich starts with seasoned meat cooked on and shaved from a vertical rotisserie. Traditional shawarma often is lamb, but Bagig uses lean black Angus beef to appeal to American palates. Customers then head to a glass case, where they point to their desired toppings. Feel free to choose all 14 of them (not counting sauces), which include hummus, tabbouleh, grilled onions and carrot salad. But Bagig says the magic number is four.

"Ten to 12 toppings takes away from the shawarma," he says.

The contents are stuffed into a round of bread twice as thick and squishy as traditional pita. Once construction is complete, grab a seat at one of eight tables or head back onto the sidewalk.

We warmed up with a medley of appetizers. The kibbeh (two for $2.95) has a crunchy outer layer of bulgur with a soft interior that spills its secrets: well-minced ground beef, pine nuts and flecks of spices smelling sweetly of a baker's kitchen. The spinach pie ($2.95) is like a calzone from the Fertile Crescent, with a cushion of bread inside and a layer of spinach, onions and sumac.

The restaurant's three variations of personal-size pizzas called manakeesh have little in common with the giant slices available up the street. House-made dough bakes up thin and crisp in a brick oven; the zataar ($3.95) features a pungent paste of thyme and sesame seed on top.

For the beef shawarma ($6.95; chicken also is available), we took Bagig's suggestion and chose a quartet of fixings: pickled "beets" (actually turnips), baba ghanouj, cucumber-tomato salad and fried eggplant. The moist, bite-size slivers of meat did not get lost among the accompaniments, whose tang, crunch and greenery add balance.

For dessert, we liked the house-made creamy rice pudding ($2.95), infused with orange flower water and as soothing as a glass of warm milk. Combined with the shawarma, it was the perfect nightcap.

-- Andrea Sachs (Good to Go, May 6, 2009)