Sorry Grandma, while you were posting I was actually out tasting...
I fell in love with shwarma in Amsterdam, on a college graduation trip. That gorgeous pile of lamb chops on a spit, carved off and stuffed in a pita with a little lettuce and a lot of white sauce drew my friends and I almost every day we were there. The one I enjoyed that was enhanced by a salad bar to fix up your sandwich, right on the Dam, was one of the top ten most enjoyed meals of my life.
Since returning home and moving back to the city I have pursued shwarma at every opportunity. I've had some decent ones, some not so-good, but they've always left me a little empty inside. I think part of it is the sauce, and somewhat the meat. Azuri, in Manhattan, gave me some fulfillment recently,but while dressed as well as any sandwich anywhere in the city, the pile of lamb chops is actually chicken, and just not good enough.
Several months ago I noticed the little Arab section that has developed on Steinway St. just below the Grand Central. I saw shwarma on a number of menus, but was not able to sample any at that time, so I made a note to come back and do an exhaustive survey. Saturday afternoon, I finally had an opportunity to do so, and enlisted a couple of friends who lived nearby to come along.
Starting from Astoria Blvd, we first came upon Pita Palace, 24-39 Steinway St. There was a single guy behind the counter, talking the entire time on his cell phone. As we were really hungry, I barged right in and ordered a shwarma sandwich, $5. My friends ordered the same. There was no meat on a spit, he took it out from holding and threw it on his grill with a few onions. We sat down at a dirty table, which we cleaned off ourselves. I then noticed that the place was filthy. We sucked it up and stuck it out. They certainly had a steady flow of traffic, despite this. The shwarma came in a cheap pita and was assembled poorly, with layers instead of consistent distribution of the nicely charred lamb and the vegetables. It was very light on sauce, and in the end was fair. We chowed and left quickly.
Moving south, we next came to El Rawsheh, 25-48 Steinway St. This was the exact opposite of Pita Palace, with two spits of meat (lamb and chicken) spinning and a professional-looking counter man behind the counter with a wide array of chopped vegetables and sauces in bins ready to go. Again, we got two shwarmas ($3.50), which the counter man brough to us as we went to a back tent and sat at an impeccably clean table near an impressive rack of hookahs. The shwarma came packaged like a burrito. The pita was a very large and thin one, which had been split and both pieces toasted on the grill. THe lamb was soft but charry, with a nice array of raw onion, tomato, fresh beets, lettuce, and pickles mixed in, with tahini and excellent hot sauce. It was very different from Amsterdam, but one of the best shwarmas I've ever had. We lingered here for a bit.
As we set out again we were seeing that a lot of places were empty or closed. Finally, it was pointed out to us that it was Ramadan, and most of the places weren't going to open until 5. Oops. Nothing like looking for food served by people who can't eat any! Moving back towards my friends' house, we passed Papa's Empanadas, 25-51 Steinway St, which looks like a chain. Since I didn't eat the expected 4 or 5 shwarmas, I decided to stop in here for an empanada to go. I ordered one with sweet plantain and cheese. While paying, I noticed a hot case, and in it was, among other things, a beautiful golden chicharron- a fried piece of pork skin with bits of meat attached. I immediately ordered one of those to eat while waiting for my empanada, and it came with an arepa, Columbian style. My friends quickly joined me in picking off the crispy-juicy-salty pieces of pork, with one begging me not to let her near one of these again. She'll be back. The empanada was tasty, but despite the crust being a pretty dark brown the cheese was more of a luke-warm hunk in the middle, and not terribly appetizing.
So there's three or four more restaurants that I didn't get to try there, so hopefully I'll get back there soon. As of now, my recommendation for a shwarma on that strip is El Rawsheh. I also want to believe that somewhere on Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn that there is an equal or better shwarma, given the concentration of Arab immigrants there. Hopefully someone can let me know about that.