Needless to say, the $20 Diner doesn't do chains. Or at least not many of them. Chains tend to be above scrutiny. With their advertising budgets and sheer reach, chains are immune to the praise or needlings of a critic. Every location has already been market-researched down to the last household within a three-mile radius. I prefer to save my calories and scribblings for the little guys.
Well, turns out, the Shawarma Guys are the little guys.
The shawarma/falafel shop opened in the Festival at Manchester Lakes shopping center in December 2015, the debut restaurant from Maseeh Es-Haq and Mustapha Zeid. These brothers-in-law make unlikely business partners. Es-Haq, a native of Afghanistan, used to work in IT and real estate, but food has long been his passion. Zeid made his bones in a different service industry altogether: auto service, where he still spends most of his work hours.
Zeid, however, is the Lebanese connection, the guy with the taste buds conditioned to know when the shawarma or hummus have taken a horrible left turn. Still, Es-Haq is the man in charge of the kitchen, sort of Zeid's emissary, even if the Afghan's palate is more attuned to the nuances of rice, kebabs and mantu dumplings. Es-Haq clearly loves a challenge. Almost everything is made in-house: the football-shaped pita bread, the hummus, the falafel, the kibbe, the fatayer meat and cheese pies, even the carefully constructed towers of chicken and beef/lamb used in the shawarma.
Not that you need more evidence, but Es-Haq is proof you don't have to be raised with a cuisine to produce superb examples of it. If a diner makes smart choices, Es-Haq's shawarma sandwiches are dense with interlocking flavors, almost impossible to separate without turning your meal into a prospecting dig, which is just daunting and distracting. This bite should be enjoyed fast and free of mind, as you would on the sidewalks of Beirut after a night of robust drinking.
With its counter service and toppings bar, Shawarma Guys is a reminder that Middle Eastern street vendors may be the originators of fast-casual fare, these quick-and-customizable snacks that blow away the junk from Western fast-food chains. This strip mall shop allows you to select your preferred shawarma delivery system — pita, rice bowl or salad — but the only logical choice is the bread, fresh and warm from the oven. Es-Haq has developed a multigrain pita that sounds precious but is actually thin (so it won't smother the fillings), sturdy (so it can ferry the fillings without bursting at the seams) and flavorful (a filling's best friend).
My favorite construction is Es-Haq's pita spread with a thin layer of hummus that's infused with tahini, garlic and lemon juice. The hummus serves as your de facto tarator sauce, the foundation of any respectable Lebanese shawarma. To this base, I'll add a secondary layer of toum, a garlic sauce made with olive oil and egg whites, which Es-Haq whips into an airy, delicately pungent spread. From there, I'll pile in strips of the marinated-and-grilled meat, a halal mixture that plays up the good, grassy flavors of the lamb instead of the fatty beef. After adding my preferred toppings — pickles, sumac onions, a little lettuce and chopped tomatoes — I'll end up holding what is, quite possibly, the finest $6.95 sandwich in the DMV. In fact, I wish I had one now.
The interesting thing is that Es-Haq has smuggled a few Afghan flavors onto his Middle Eastern menu. Instead of drizzling tahini on your shawarma, you can opt for cilantro chutney or spicy tomato chutney, both built from recipes that Es-Haq nicked from his mother. The cilantro sauce, in particular, adds a fresh, almost bright note to the shawarma, a cross-pollination that doesn't lead straight to bastardization. You can even wash your sandwich down with the chef's Afghan-style tea, a combination of green and black teas sweetened with sugar and honey. The drink was made for shawarma (though obviously not).
Should you prefer rice over pita bread, the Himalayan basmati will be prepared Afghan-style, a laborious process that results in slender, aromatic grains, each as separate as blades of grass. Frankly, I preferred the rice over the falafel that squatted atop the grains. The fried chickpea-and-fava balls were tasty enough, both garlicky and herby, but their shells could be hard nuts to crack. Same with the underperforming kibbe, an economical preparation that substitutes walnuts for more expensive pine nuts; these ground-beef-and-bulgur croquettes were fried to a toe-curling crunch.
The baba ghanouj is the highlight of the appetizers, a dip so smoky and slammable you'll want to stock up on pita bread to scoop it all up. The baklava is one of the few items not made in-house, but these flaky squares are honeyed just enough to take the salty edge off the pistachio mixture. I'll take the baklava any day over the house-made rice pudding, a jiggy mass flavored with vanilla and sweetened to syrupy levels.
By the way, Es-Haq is not the only creative one in his household. His wife, Saeda Siam, a lawyer by profession, designed the Shawarma Guys space, riffing off the existing copper-colored floor. Knowing the interior's DIY roots, I now feel sort of cruel for calling it corporate, but Es-Haq says the design does hint at the shop's ambitions. "We did kind of set it up as a chain," he says, "because you never know what happens in the future."
If you go
7011-C Manchester Blvd., Alexandria. 703-922-3665. shawarmaguys.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Saturday; and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday.
Nearest Metro: Franconia-Springfield, with a 1.3-mile trip to the restaurant.
Prices: $2.95 to $4.49 for appetizers and sides; $6.95 to $8.95 for pita sandwiches, salads and rice bowls.
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