Scarborough to a soft-handed bourgeois Summerhillian like me evokes a note of gangland danger and strip mall exoticism. The press treatment that the old eastern borough has been getting lately jerks between shootings and foodie porn. This has proved heady stuff for those of us who inhabit Toronto’s leafy brick house neighbourhoods serviced by Starbucks and subways or streetcars. It’s also probably mostly bullshit.
In the last year or so I have poked around Scarberia and what I’ve found is working class Toronto. When I was a kid in the 70s that meant white, Mike Meyers, Scarborough. Now, it means hard working immigrants making the most of cheap rent high rises and post-war track housing developments. Whatever gun play stories dominate the headlines, it seems to be mostly concentrated on scattering of public housing pins stuck into a big map. As for the strip mall food porn, we’ve not yet found our Hogtown Jonathan Gold, but there is definitely something going on east of Victoria Park, not always necessarily better than what one finds in the the core of the city, but once and a while it is – at least in its own way.
Shawarma Empire came to my attention through Chris Nuttal-Smith’s well received Globe and Mail piece on Scarborough strip mall eating in the summer of 2012. (CN-S, if you still read GFR, please do more suburban pieces.) When I assigned myself a story on what FoodShare was up to at Bendale Business and Technical Institute down the road and up the block, I knew that I had to check it out.
As I have intimated before, I have had a love affair with shawarma since I was at university in Montreal in the early 90s. The Middle Eastern sandwich is perfectly constructed for the student who wishes to divert as much of his food budget to beer as possible, while avoiding any actual cooking or food preparation. The first motive speaks for itself, and the second probably does not really require this explanation that any work done in a male undergraduate’s kitchen would require the Herculean task of at least moving, if not actually cleaning, the dirty dishes that had been piled up in the sink and on the counters since frosh week. A shawarma packed with meat, vegetables, pickles, tahini, and garlic and hot sauces, offered a tasty way to ingest most of the recommended food groups for under $5 (then). It’s no coincidence there’s a concentration of shawarma shops on the Annex strip on Bloor, and another south of the U of T campus, on College Street.
Inflation and age have raised the price of a good shawarma and altered my appreciation of it over the last 20 odd years. I seek the Lunch Under $10 so as to divert funds to my family’s wine budget, I consider cooking one of life’s great pleasures, not a chore, and my wife has me well trained to always do the dishes before retiring to bed, or even the couch. So, driven by flavour more than convenience, I have become picky about where I procure my pita sandwich fixes.
Shawarma Empire delivers and, happily, it delivers in a distinct way. In a strip mall next to a Halal butcher, and a few doors down from a Japanese adult toy outlet (!), the shop is staffed by four Maghrebi looking and sounding men. These men are busy because at noon, extending from the counter behind which they work to the door, there is a line-up of hungry male customers, dressed in clothes appropriate for construction sites, ordering two shawarma “sandwiches” at a time. Shawarma refers to the way the meat (chicken or beef) is cooked; layered on a vertical rotisserie spit turning next to an electric plate on the side. So, while it is possible to order (here and in every other shawarma joint I’ve ever been too) a “plate” of shawarma, typically with rice as well as flat bread and salad, “shawarma” will most commonly be accepted as a shorthand term for the meat’s presentation in sandwich form.
At Shawarma Empire the short menu includes a combo, where one can order a single sandwich with a pop and fries or lentil soup for well under $10 with tax, the most common order (at least from what I could observe from my fellow diners – all working men in pairs or groups of three or four) was the “Buy One Get One Free” shawarma special that has run for at least five years, if not the entire life of the restaurant, for $5.99. (This two-for-oner also works for the falafel sandwich, but I didn’t see anyone order one of those, so I’m not sure that it’s done.) From the menu there is, in fact, no discernible way to order just one shawarma. Perhaps one could haggle one of the cooks/cashiers behind the counter to only serve a single shawarma at half rate, or something like that. But in the lunch time rush I wasn’t about to find out, and I’m just as glad I didn’t since ordering the pair meant sampling both the chicken and the beef.
As it happens, the Shawarma Empire version of their namesake sandwich is not altogether large, so ordering two does not connote the same level of gluttony that it would at a downtown joint where they serve them wrapped in large flat bread in the Levantine style. Here, thicker crumbed pita breads of maybe six inches of diameter are cut at the top and stuffed with meat, mixed pickles and salad, mayonnaisy garlic sauce, and a special hot sauce ladled from a metal container on the stoves. The bread is fresh. The salad is the standard shredded romaine, tomatoes, onions, pickled turnips (made pink by a beet slipped into the brine) and curly parsley tabouli. At Shawarma Empire the salad is pre-mixed to handle the crowds, and custom ordering seems to be frowned upon – though at less busy time I suspect it would be accommodated. The meat was good, but unremarkable. I prefer the Maillard effect on rotisseried chicken bits, so next time I’ll go double bird. What set the Shawarma Empire shawarma apart from its downtown competitors, though, is the homemade hot sauce.
A successful shawarma depends on so many ingredients, either blending or working off of one another, that to single out one component as a kind of make or break indicia of quality would be hyperbolic. There are, and I have had, excellent shawarmas that use Frank’s Red Hot as their agent of heat. But, those establishments who bother to make their own harrissas, blending chillies with other more complex and subtle flavours from fruits and spices, deserve a mark of distinction. At Shawarma Empire the hot sauce was rich brown colour, it was not particularly hot – just pleasantly prickly, and it was rendolent of Middle Eastern Spices like cumin, nutmeg and cinnamon. Slightly sweet, it had a pleasant tang that Nuttal-Smith guesses is tamarind, but I speculate is sumac. It’s good and I regret not making a fuss and asking for more when my sandwiches were being assembled. Next time.
Shawarma Empire is in the second strip mall on the south side of Lawrence just east of Pharmacy. Click here for the address, map and phone number. Just a little further east ont he same side of Lawrence is the amazing Arz Lebanese grocery and bakery. Together they make a compelling argument for “Old City of Toronto” types to cross Victoria Park.