Shwarma
The Magician's shwarma atop hummus. Hakosem Restaurant. Photo by Sharon Ben David
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Among Israeli aficionadas, the battle for the championship title of Best Shwarma can be compared maybe only to that of Best Hummus.

Fans of every restaurant and vendor competing for the trophy of this highly prized Middle Eastern delicacy swears by his or her own idea of what the ultimate shwarma experience should be: the cut and type of meat, the strength or subtlety of spice, the amount of fat, even the cleanliness of the joint.

With hummus, tahini or without? Lamb, turkey or veal? Inside a laffa, a pita or a baguette? With amba and spice, or is simple more nice? Should it be wolfed down while standing or delicately forked at a table?

Once considered just a quick sandwich to grab on the go, shwarma has in recent year secured its spot among gourmands, finding its place on the menu at many a chef restaurant.

So what's the best shwarma in Tel Aviv? Have a taste of the top five, as ranked by the experts at Haaretz and City Mouse Tel Aviv.

Daboush – Ibn Gvirol 46

The place: The Daboush chain has set the standard for quality of shwarma in Israel from nearly the moment it was established in 2001. If you ask any of its devout customers for the secret of its success, you'll almost certainly be rewarded with the response: "Just taste it and you'll be instantly addicted".

At the main branch of the chain, on Ibn Gvirol, long lines already snake the corner by noon on a daily basis and don't let up until well into the evening.

The salads are homemade (except the hummus, because "that's an expert field in itself", according to the owners), each fresh and appetizing, the counters are clean and shiny, and so are the tables dotting the sidewalk. In short: everything fresh, everything good.

The dish: Turkey shwarma, sliced and grilled to perfection, spiced heavily with cumin and an array of secret flavors, spread out in a pita with heaps of fresh salad, homemade tahini and piles of side dishes including red and white cabbage, sweet and spicy pepper, onion and sumac, arissa, irresistible amba (mango chutney) and more.

The price: NIS 28 for a whole sandwich, NIS 18 for half. Add NIS 1 for french fries.

Kababa – Carlebach 14

The place: Kababa opened just last month, as the brainchild of the Dabush chain, and is essentially a cross between your good old fashioned Middle Eastern restaurant and designer fast food. The menu is simple, focused mostly on shwarma and kabob, but every dish is spruced up with a twist of cilantro, a touch of red pepper, just the right spice and flavor. The sparseness and cleanliness of the place is at such high a standard, even the most gourmet of chef restaurants would be hard-pressed to match it.

The dish: Our experts recommend the shwarma salad, the best of everything on one plate, without an unnecessary calorie in sight. A generous mix of meat (spring chicken and veal), prepared with a minimal amount of fat, served atop a bed of fresh vegetables chopped to order. The spring chicken is light and tender, the veal incomparably aromatic, touched with cinnamon. Served with a side of whole grain rice, this is healthy shwarma at its finest.

The price: NIS 31

Hakosem (The Magician) – Shlomo Hamelech 1

The place: It's impossible not to love Hakosem. The place has been open for more than a decade, and has never lost its quality and creativity, from its tahini and pickles to its rimonada (pomegranade – think pomegranate lemonade). Shwarma is the king of this joint however, prepared with just the right amount of fat, served from morning until the fresh stock sells out at around 10 P.M. Once the shwarma is gone, you can get your fill from the no-less delicious liver and onions, falafel or schnitzel. The salad is cut fresh multiple times an hour, the pita always warm and inviting. There's no wonder they call this place The Magician.

The dish: Our experts are partial to the shwarma hummus, one plate that provides a marriage of the restaurants top picks. The shwarma is turkey based, soft and juicy, sliced thin. The meat is laid atop a luscious spread of hummus with whole chickpeas and tomato salsa, and served with a ton of side dishes including a falafel ball with a dallop of tahini, thin and crispy slices of eggplant, spicy peppers, pickles, lemon juice and of course, a pile of fresh pitas. Worth every shekel.

The price: NIS 35

Olei Tzion – Olei Tzion Street (Jaffa)

The place: This new Jaffa restaurant was recently opened under the partnership of renowned chefs Nir Zuk and Natalie Shahaf, and is at its heart, a happy place. The kitchen is open to the sight of all diners, the portions are small/medium in size and go well with the arak-based cocktails, the tables are long, inviting different groups to come and sit together, the music is fun, and the menu just the right blend of typical Middle Eastern cuisine, with a touch of Balkan flavor, and influenced by the now-diverse culture of Jaffa.

The dish: Shwarma sheitl. 160 grams of finely grilled strips of meat, done according to personal taste. Served with grilled cumin on a bed of parsley for just the right Middle Eastern authenticity, with roasted almonds for a touch of contemporary cuisine. Served with a dip of yogurt, garlic and olive oil. This is the kind of shwarma you've got to eat with a fork and knife.

The price: NIS 53

Haj Kahil – Shivtei Yisrael 91 (Jaffa)

The place: Just down the street you'll find this authentic Jaffa restaurant, a 20-year-old eatery that has inspired the name Haj Kahil Square. The menu here is consistent, good, simple and filling: grilled meats, choice of salads and side dishes, hummus, fries, and a bottomless basket of laffas baked fresh on the house taboun. There are no surprises here, just authenticity and deliciousness at an affordable price.

The dish: Our experts opt for the lamb shwarma, the real deal. A mixture of veal, sliced and ground, just juicy and fatty enough. The secret spices don't hide the flavor of the meat itself, and though the veal is sliced thin, it's anything but dry. This is shwarma the way shwarma is supposed to be.

The price: NIS 35 for a plate, NIS 31 in a pita, NIS 36 in laffa/baguette.

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