When you’re craving adventure, Tom Hanchett can get you a fix. Now retired from the Levine Museum of the New South, Hanchett spends his time roaming Charlotte in search of compass points where worlds collide on your plate.
That’s why Hanchett and I set out recently in search of meat on a stick. A really big stick. We were looking for a single dish that shows up, under different names and slightly different forms, from Turkey to Greece to the Middle East to Mexico.
The dishes on our search: Shawarma, gyros and tacos al pastor.
“The commonality,” says Hanchett, always the professor, “is the Ottoman Empire. A lot of things we think of as Middle Eastern are Ottoman. What is Ottoman? It’s basically Turkey.”
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First stop: Syrian shawarma
Several years ago, while writing about Golden Bakery on Sharon Amity Road, I met Khaled Mahrousa, a young baker from Aleppo, Syria. Today, Mahrousa has his own restaurant, Jasmine Grill, on South Boulevard.
At lunch on a recent Wednesday, Mahrousa and his staff were scrambling, with almost every table filled, including a big group of middle schoolers on a field trip from Marie G. Davis’ global leadership program.
In the back, behind the counter, we spied what we were looking for: A long vertical spit loaded with a stack of boneless meat. This one was chicken, although Jasmine also makes it with a combination of beef and lamb.
It’s an ingenious form of cooking: Meat is stacked tightly on the tall spit, forming a cone, then spins slowly in front of a burner, getting browned from top to bottom. When the outside is browned, they slice it off from top to bottom. The spit keeps turning, browning the next layer, while the piles of sliced meat are moved to a griddle and cooked quickly with a little onion and tomato.
We order beef and chicken shawarma, hummus and the minty/lemony house salad. It’s quite a plate: A long trough of hummus topped with pools of olive oil and piles of ground pepper, paprika and parsley, with lightly spicy shaved meat on each side and cups of an addictive potato-thickened garlic sauce and thin tahini.
While we tear pitas and dig in, Hanchett tells me about a revelation he had on a trip to Istanbul four years ago: A lot of food we think of as Middle Eastern is found in Turkey in different forms.
“Every 20 or 30 feet, there’s another store or restaurant and every third one has a spit,” he says. “ ‘Oh yeah,’ you say: ‘There’s gyro.’ Only it isn’t gyro. It’s shawarma.”
Next: Greek gyro
The Ottoman Empire once ruled a big swath of the world. Starting in 1299, it eventually stretched from Western Asia to North Africa to Southeast Europe. It was what sat between the Eastern world and the Western world.
Before it all fell apart around World War I, eventually shrinking into what is now Turkey, Ottoman style spread to a lot of places.
In Turkey, meat on a spit is doner kebab, still found at Turkish restaurants like Metropolitan Cafe in Charlotte. In Greece, it became gyros – stacks of lamb piled on a vertical spit, roasted, shaved and tucked in a pita.
To get from Syria to Greece, we drove less than a minute, from Jasmine Grill to the Mad Greek Cafe. Owner Chris Limberakis invited us back to the kitchen to look at his lamb gyro. He’s picky about gyro meat. A lot of places use beef with a lot of bread as filler, he says. His is all lamb, from a gyro maker in Chicago.
He shaves some off the turning spit, piles it up on a grill and sprinkles it with his own mix of spices. It’s moist and soft, with that char-grilled flavor. This time, the pita is puffy and thicker, and the garlic sauce is tatziki, with cucumber and yogurt.
On to Israel: Chicken shawarma
When Izzat Freitekh moved from Jerusalem to Charlotte, he opened La Shish Kabob on Sharon Amity, a cafe like the one he left behind in Israel.
“There’s serious hand-making here,” Hanchett says. Freitekh makes his own yogurt for marinating his chicken, and builds tall shawarma stacks twice a day.
In Israel, he made it with turkey, but that’s too costly in America. He uses chicken, marinated in yogurt and spices, and a combination of breasts and thighs to keep it moist.
“Every country makes it different,” Freitekh says. “Jerusalem different from Egypt, Egypt different from Turkey.”
This time, our hummus is piled with chunks of chicken, long strips of pickle, tomato slices, onion, parsley and warm pita. The chicken has crispy, chewy edges.
“Outside brown, we would call it in Southern barbecue culture,” says Hanchett.
Last stop: Mexico
On Saturday afternoon, our final global stop was Jose Medina’s Pinchos El Bori food truck, which parks on Saturday and Sunday evenings at 3731 N. Sharon Amity Road.
Pinchos are chicken and pork skewers from Medina’s native Puerto Rico. But inside the truck, his wife, Ava, who is from Mexico, is in charge of the al pastor spit, stacked with layers of pork and topped with an onion half and a big section of peeled pineapple.
As the outside browns, she shaves off the meat, letting it fall into the juices at the bottom of the cooker. She piles them on a griddle along with a little shaved pineapple. As it cooks, she dips corn tortillas in the juices and flips them onto the griddle. The meat is served on warm tortillas with a fiery habanero cucumber salad.
In Mexico, Medina says, the spit is called trompo, the word for a child’s top, because of the shape – wide at the top and narrow at the bottom.
How did a dish that started with lamb in the Middle East end up with pork in Mexico?
Blame war, as usual: When the Ottoman Empire was breaking up in the early 19th century, people from Syria and Lebanon left to find peaceful places to live. As many as 36,000 ended up in Mexico, where they were nicknamed Al Pastor, pastor or shepherd, for their habit of eating lamb.
By the 1930s, the dish had been adapted to pork, easier to find in Mexico, with tortillas replacing the pita.
What kind of pork is it? Medina grins: Boston butt, cut into thin slices and stacked on the spit.
“That’s a grandmama secret,” he says. “Nobody knows but you.”
Well, now everybody knows. But Boston butt, the base of North Carolina barbecue? Once again, a great trip led us right back home.
The Shaved Meat Trail
Jasmine Grill, 5033 South Blvd., 980-207-1859, jasminegrillcharlotte.com. Prices: Shawarma plates $8.99 (chicken) and $10.95 (beef and lamb); shawarma wraps, $6.99 (chicken) and $7.99 (beef and lamb). (Our combination of hummus, two kinds of shawarma and salad was $12.99.)
Mad Greek Cafe, 5011 South Blvd., 704-523-8296, www.madgreekclt.com. Prices: Gyro dinner $11.95, gyro sandwich, $8.95.
La Shish Kabob, 3117 N. Sharon Amity Road, 704-567-7900, www.lashishkabob.com. Prices: Hummus and shawarma plate $8.99, chicken shawarma wrap $4.99 ($8.99 with bread, garlic sauce and fries), plate with rice, $11.99.
Pinchos El Bori food truck, 3731 N. Sharon Amity Road, 5:30-9 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; and Seventh and Brevard streets uptown, 9:30 p.m.-3 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. 704-449-6902, or on Facebook. Prices: $2 per taco.
Metropolitan Cafe, 138 Brevard Court, 704-333-5175. Doner kebab with beef/lamb or chicken. Prices: $8.65 for a plate or $7.57 for a pita.