Shawarma, by which I mean the sandwich variety, must be the most underated of Toronto’s cheap but delicious ethnic foods. And yet, there is shawarma shop in nearly every neighbourhood in Toronto, and even homegrown chain of 11 Ali Baba’s. Does familiarity breed contempt? Why do we fuss over tacos*, as though we were a Chicago or Portland on Lake Ontario, when our Middle Eastern neighbours provide us with an equally delicious meat in flatbread around nearly every corner. We must not know how good we’ve got it.
Of course, not all shawarma shops are created equally. Since my mid-twenties I have tried to sample as many downtown Toronto shawarmas as I can, after I picked up the turning meat habit as an undergraduate in Montreal. Because shawarma shows particularly well after a night of drinking, the results of my multi-decade survey cannot be called wholly scientific. I am also, no doubt, missing out big on what can be found in the strip malls of what we now call the “older suburbs”. Still, if there is an art to assessing the city’s pita fillers, then I hold myself reasonably qualified to practice it.
Like any symphony, the trick to excellent shawarma is the extent to which its constituent parts (bread, meat, vegetables, pickles and sauces) meld together while retaining their individual integrity on the palate. The pita must be fresh**, the meat must be well cooked, but juicy and include crispy bits from the rotisserie’s electric grill, there must be good sauces, including garlic and hot, the vegetable selection must also be fresh and include tabouli, and there must be pickled turnips. The last criteria might not be entirely universal, and the shawarma at La Gazelle is the exception that proves the rule, but nine time out of ten no pickled turnips is a deal breaker.
A La Turque is in the heart of the Gay Village on the west side of Church Street, just north of Wellesley. It holds itself out as a purveyor of “Turkish Cuisine”, which distinguishes it from the majority of Toronto’s shawarma joints, which are run by Lebanese or Syrian expats. If there is a quality to their shawarma which makes it more Turkish and less Levantine, than I don’t know what it is. The A La Turque shawarma is very much in the Toronto tradition. What distinguishes them from the run of the mill shop is the quality of their ingredients: they are the freshest I have seen behind plexiglass. Along with hot sauce and garlic sauce, they add tahini and a herbed yoghurt as well as one of the most extensive arrays of vegetables and pickles including: Romaine lettuce, tomatoes, white onion, sliced cucumber, tabouli, dill pickles, pickled red cabbage and pickled turnips. As many pickled turnips as you like, actually. The effect, apart from being tasty and refreshingly crisp is a complete meal for $5 and 9¢ plus tax: if you throw in a pop, you’re total will be $7.26. Not bad at all.
Browse GFR’s complete archive of Toronto Lunches Under $10 here.
*For the record: I love tacos and the people who make them. A lot. Peace.
**The Paramount on Yonge Street bakes their own pita, so it’s super fresh. I find, however, their fillings to be limited and fairly pedestrian. There were no pickled turnips in mine when I was there recently. In fairness, when I’ve been, the only people eating shawarma in a pita looked like they might be of Northern European descent. The people who looked like they might be of Middle Easter descent, which is to say most, were eating platters, with pita on the side. It’s a table service restaurant, which made me wonder if we infidels eating the pita wraps were engaged in the cultural equivalent of ordering off of the kids menu.
Malcolm Jolley is a founding editor of Good Food Revolution and Executive Director of Good Food Media, the not-for-profit corporation which publishes it. Follow him at twitter.com/malcolmjolley