Shawarma Empire, like so many great humble eateries, is hidden in a strip mall in Scarborough. It can't be hidden from too many, though, because a steady lineup dominates this small but bright and lively space throughout the day.
Ahed Darwish is the captain of this shawarma ship, using forty-year-old recipes that have been passed down through generations to bring Middle Eastern street food to the hungry people of Scarborough. Everything is made from scratch, in house, without preservatives. It's also cash only, so make sure your wallet is stocked before you join that long (but quick-moving) lunch rush line.
The place seats about twenty, and has a friendly vibe that accommodates visitors from all walks of life. You're just as likely to be standing in line between a businessman and a construction worker as a family and a solo commuter. As a regular, Darwish may even greet you with a warm "How are you, brother? Good to see you."
They put the rotating meat cones that become shawarma together themselves fresh in the restaurant, layer after layer of raw chicken just waiting to meld together magically.
The shawarma at this place it out of this world, so we have to try a classic sandwich with chicken ($7.99). The main difference at Shawarma Empire is the ingredients: for example, many places use chicken with the skin on to keep it from drying out and because it's cheaper, and they don't do that here. This wrap comes with all the fixings, lettuce, pickled turnip, and it's finished off with a garlic sauce.
The same high standards apply to the beef shawarma (also $7.99), which we get in plate form. They use strip loin beef, preferring to spend the two to three dollars extra a kilo to get a really standout product. You can really taste the difference, the more flavourful cut feeling like a steak on your tongue but with the added deliciousness of a Middle Eastern plate of lentils, rice and salad.
I watched Darwish scoop out the falafel mixture himself for our falafel plate ($6.99) with a special pro falafel scoop , so there's no doubt it's absolutely fresh. They soak the chickpeas themselves the day before, then wash them before grinding them into the mixture that becomes a delicious deep-fried falafel ball. This and the shawarma plate come with tahini.
They also serve classic spicy bread on the side, simply a wedge of pita dipped in special hot sauce. To wash it all down, I'd recommend a Vimto : I'm not sure what the connection is exactly since it's an English drink, but it's basically a slightly herbaceous cream soda.
Photos by Hector Vasquez