What is Shawarma?
The Arabic world is a derivation of the Turkish çevirme, which literally means to turn or rotate. Traditionally, this popular Middle Eastern street food is made by alternating stacks of seasoned chicken or lamb with thin strips of fat to make massive meat cones, sometimes up to 200 pounds. These inverted pyramids rotate in front of a heat source (ideally charcoal), so that as it cooks the outer edges become smokey and crisp, while the layers of fat naturally baste the meat and keep it juicy.
When an order is placed, the outer layer of meat is sliced off and served either on a plate, usually with hummus, fries, and a token salad of lettuce and tomato, or in a wrap, slathered in garlic sauce and accentuated with a tart pickles.
Good shawarma is a thing of beauty, and here in San Diego, good shawarma is hard to find.
Most of what is served is Middle Eastern seasoned chicken or lamb that’s cooked on a griddle. It may share the seasonings of a shawarma, but if it doesn’t come thinly sliced from a turning spit, then it really isn’t shawarma.
Lucky for shawarma lovers like me, Simsim Outstanding Shawarma lives up to its name.
The New Spot
Bright and clean, Simsim is the upscale fast-casual brainchild of Chaldean businessman Nawar Miri, who brought on Jordanian chef Ibrahim Alsharief to open the restaurant in January.
Counter service ensures you’ll get your meal quickly, and the fact that there’s a chef behind the scenes, means that what’s on your plate is going to be elevated, surprising, and at a level of quality you’d expect at a table service restaurant.
Chef Alsharief earned his chops working in five-star restaurants and luxury hotels in the Arabian Gulf in Kuwait and Dubai, and spend time deep-diving into his culinary heritage, exploring the origins of traditional Gulf spices and studying traditional bread making in Lebanon.
At Simsim, he combines his chef’s sensibility when it comes to high quality sourcing, inventive flavor combinations, and perfect execution on a menu based around the most iconic street food in the Middle East.
Chef Alsharief doesn’t mess with perfection, he sticks to the traditional methods of long marinated, slow-cooked meat that’s carved to order, using the best ingredients available.
Saj bread is cooked fresh on the traditional dome-shaped griddle for each sandwich ordered, and the classic array of traditional sides, like roasted red pepper muhammara, smoky eggplant moutabel, creamy eggplant baba ganoush, and classic hummus are made fresh daily.
Sauces are essential to a shawarma wrap or plate, and this is where we start to see glimmers of the chef’s playful side. In addition to classic cucumber yogurt, tahini, and garlic sauce (both vegan), there are spicy tahini and spicy garlic sauce options available.
Likewise the shawarma menu includes the classics—chicken wrapped with onion, pickles, parsley and garlic, or their meat (a combination of lamb and beef) served with roasted onion, tomato and tahini—as well as spicy, pomegranate-laden, and vegan (falafel) versions.
Any of the wraps can be customized and are served with french fries, which are essential for dipping into the amazing sauces.
The most inventive way to enjoy Simsim’s signature meats and falafel are as bowls (it wouldn’t be a SoCal endeavor if there wasn’t a bowl menu, amiright?), the most epic of which is the “indulge” feta shawarma bowl.
Lightly seasoned chickpeas are topped with both chicken and meat shawarma, fresh parsley and mint, a sprinkle of tart sumac, crispy pita chips, slivered almonds and drizzles of tomato and tahini sauces. We, of course, added dollops of spicy garlic sauce as well. The combination of subtle and salty, crisp and tender, ended up making it one of our more unexpected favorites.
Besides soft drinks, you can enjoy a house-made hibiscus lemonade with rose water that’s refreshing and mild, not too sweet and not too tangy, almost like a fruit tea.
Don’t miss the complimentary spiced tea over by the soda dispenser, where you can help yourself to a cup of milk chai or black chai.
What to Order
The best fattoush salad in San Diego (fight me). Their version of this Lebanese staple is made with arugula, romaine, cucumber, tomato, and radish tossed with fresh mint and lemon-basil leaves, oregano, pomegranate seeds sumac and crunchy pita chips in a garlic-molasses vinaigrette. Fresh, tangy, crunchy, perfection.
We were partial to the classic “simple” chicken and garlic and “authentic” meat and tahini wraps, with a side of every house-made sauce available to dip our fries in.
The "indulge" bowl would be our go-to order on days when we were forgoing bread or wanted something heartier than a sandwich.