Fire, stick, meat: Short of biting directly into the raw flesh of, say, a bow-and-arrowed deer, it doesn’t get more primal than this. It comes with many monikers, depending on where you’re standing when you bite down. Kebab. Shawarma. Gyro. Tarna. But let’s not get caught up in the name game. Let’s just agree to call this by its rightful name: spinning meat.
Spinning meat is on the move these days. It traveled across the Atlantic long ago (most notably to Mexico, where it became the most heroic taco of all, the taco al pastor), but only now is it picking up steam in major American cities. TMZ, that bastion of journalistic exactitude, reported a recent surge in shawarma business around Los Angeles related to a scene at the end of The Avengers. In it, a thoroughly thrashed Robert Downey Jr. lays on the ground and muses to Captain America about his desire to finally try shawarma. (Turns out the line was ad-libbed by Ironman, ironic since it’s the only part of the movie that rang true.)
No doubt the scene left millions of moviegoers rushing to Google to find out what the hell Tony Stark was talking about. As these things tend to go, claims of creation and mastery of spinning meat are freighted with controversy. Perhaps some day soon we will toss our hats into the ring of fire, but for now, let’s stick to concerns of deliciousness.
Here’s the basic idea: Thin slices of meat (beef and lamb predominantly, but also goat, chicken, or turkey) are set to soak in an overnight marinade made with tasty things like yogurt, garlic, onion, cumin and coriander, plus the occasional tweak like cinnamon or rosemary or curry powder, depending on who’s cooking. After the marinade, the meat is stacked high on a long metal rod and set to spin slowly around an electric fire, an all-protein tower of Babel reaching towards the heavens.
The serving vessels are as varied as the meat themselves: Thin-skinned pitas made for stuffing, thick-skinned pitas made for wrapping, chewy, golden-crusted circles of leavened bread, flat rounds of unleavened lavash. The most standard setup consists of common sandwich sidekicks—tomatoes, onions, lettuce, pickles—enhanced with the one-two punch of garlicy yogurt sauce and spicy chili paste, but wildcards like pickled beets, grilled eggplant and crumbled sheep’s milk cheese are out there for the taking.
I can’t speak to the marvels of the great spinning meat traditions of Yerevan or Jerusalem, or even Istanbul. Truth be told, I’ve never eaten shawarma east of Prague, but after living in Spain for a few years, in a city where great spires of meat spin like lighthouses at all hours of the night, guiding in drunken souls from the rocky shores of intoxication, I can comfortably call myself an aficionado, if not an expert, of the form.
The great wealth of spinning-meat dispensaries of Barcelona are concentrated within the Raval, the Old City neighborhood with dense pockets of Middle Eastern immigrants: Pakistanis, predominantly, but also Turkish, Armenian, and Lebanese. It’s a lovely stew, the Raval; in this part of town, gloriously devoid of any high-profile attractions but close enough to the madness of the Rambla to bring in stray tourists, it’s not uncommon to find cumin-scented lamb sharing menu space with paella and sangria. I lived in the Raval for the better part of last year and immediately took to the task of singling out the best tower of meat in the city. With quality Mexican food at least an eight-hour plane ride away, shawarma would have to fill the hole in my heart.
I started where I began a decade before, at a tiny shawarma shop on a side street close to Plaza Universitat. Back then, I’d skip out on my classes at the University of Barcelona and ride over on my skateboard, backpack filled with books that had never been opened. I’d place an order, then retreat to the street to pop ollies while the old man inside went about crafting his masterpiece bite by bite. It would take 20 minutes for this guy to make a single 3€ sandwich, but every bite achieved that unique symphonic balance of a great shawarma: the sharpness of the raw onions, the sweetness of a real tomato, the baseline of yogurt and high notes of chili, and, most importantly, the garlicy, spice-crusted, crispy-tender awesomeness of a perfectly-spun meat. When I went back recently, his son had taken over, the same son who used to bounce impatiently around the restaurant yelling into his phone while his dad made beautiful things. With the son at the helm, my first bite was all meat, my last bite all lettuce. I won’t be eating there again.
And so the pursuit continued through the Rambla and eventually out of the neighborhood and into the Gothic Quarter, El Born and Gracia, to places with names like Doner King and Rey Doner Kebab and Buen Bocado. I found a few moments of joy along the way: the tender, aggressively spiced lamb kebabs at Kilim; the hangover-fighting properties of the shaved beef at Kapadokya; the overall emergence of durums, large tortillas stuffed with the traditional ingredients and toasted on a panini press, as a common shawarma vessel. But it seemed that in the decade since my student days, the ubiquity of spinning meat also came with a dumbing down of the craft. These days, most of those gorgeous spires of spinning meat are now mass produced in factories and shipped out to the various restaurants across Spain. The texture is spongy, the spices lodge in your chest and you find yourself burping them up days later.
I had given up on the hunt, resigned myself to a Spanish life of patatas bravas and chorizo-studded tortillas. But then, a few weeks ago, after a six-month shawarma hiatus, I waded back into the murky waters and found something worth writing about. The hulking vessel you see pictured above comes from an unlikely source, a mini-chain called Dionisos, a place with a slogan and a slick laminated menu. The guy in charge at the Gothic Quarter branch is a round, curly-haired Greek who sweats profusely and curses a blue streak when talking to his employees, but who turns soft and smiley the second he sees you’re serious about his shawarma. He works quickly but methodically, toasting the pita on a flattop, slicing the Ferrari-red tomatoes into thick wedges and doling out the sauces in precise squirts above and below the ingredients.
Every element is correct, but the key to this one, in hindsight, is obscenely obvious: pork. Pork! It’s not a meat you find impaled in many Middle Eastern storefronts, but in Spain, with its abundance of fat, pampered pigs and a healthy population of heathen carnivores, it makes incredible sense. His is lightly seasoned, crisp on the edges and glistening with rendered fat as it falls from the spire with swift strokes of his blade. I ate three in three days until my stomach was swollen and the Greek implored me to try something new on the menu, but there was no need. I had already found exactly what I was looking for.