More than 10 years ago, Vietnam Restaurant at 137 Pearl Street in Essex Junction became the area’s first go-to destination for pho, the aromatic Southeast Asian noodle soup. Last December, the same no-frills, strip-mall location became home to a restaurant serving another favorite from far away: shawarma, the marinated, spit-roasted, thinly shaved meat served all over the Middle East.
Mr. Shawarma, as it is aptly (and not too originally) named, also offers other classics from the region, including chickpea falafel, freshly made hummus, tabbouleh and stuffed grape leaves.
The new restaurant is a joint effort of four young men who all grew up in Iraq and came to the Burlington area with their families over the last decade. On my second visit, Sam (Usamah) Abdulkhaleq was the one who had to deal with my barrage of questions and my annoyance that, for the purposes of this column, many of the plates are priced just over the limit at $12.99. (They have since changed menu pricing and now everything seems to fall under that.)
Abdulkhaleq, who marks four years in Vermont at the end of this month, is the most recently arrived of the group. He is 28 and studying business at Community College of Vermont. “I couldn’t go to school in Syria where we went when we had to leave Iraq,” he said, “and when we moved here, I had to first learn English.”
Abdulkhaleq and his cousins, Aymen Aref and Ahmed Abdulkhaliq (a different spelling because transliteration of Arabic names is inconsistent, I was told) work together with their friend Ali Kareem. “But we are really all family,” Abdulkhaleq said. “We know how to make food and we want to share our food and our culture.”
Among the dishes I have sampled on two visits, my favorite so far is the falafel plate, consisting of six large, crisp, well-seasoned falafel balls drizzled generously with tahini sauce. At $8.99, that also allowed me to add in an order of lemony, minty, rice-stuffed grape leaves for $2.99, or try the refreshing, salty yogurt drink ($1.99) from the cooler that Abdulkhaleq said was his favorite.
I also enjoyed the beef kebab sandwich ($7.99 when I was there, $5.99 on the current menu): pita tightly rolled around long, flat patties of spiced ground beef with some lamb mixed in, along with lettuce, tomato, pickles and tahini and garlic mayonnaise sauces. “At home, we make it with just lamb, but here people don’t like that as much as beef,” Abdulkhaleq said.
I liked it best when I deconstructed it so I could really taste the flavorful meat mixture, which had a whisper of grill on it. Now that the beef kebab plate is offered for $9.99, I’d recommend trying that and adding a side of labneh, the thickened, tart yogurt spread.
The restaurant’s namesake shawarma, either beef or chicken, can also be ordered as a wrap sandwich. I will try one of those with the shrak, the thinner flatbread wrap option, next time I head there.
If dessert is your soft spot, I can highly recommend the small foil box of four different pieces of crisp, buttery, pistachio-dusted baklava for $4.99. (It isn’t overly sweet.) I especially liked the long pieces with sweetened tahini filling.
With the new menu pricing, you can also pick any of the wraps and afford a main course, too — unless, of course, $12 is not your limit.