Venue Review: Nosh
Some unseen force must be drawing them together. Something no one can explain. It was one shawarma shop. Then another. And another. Now downtown Colorado Springs is experiencing a bona fide shawarma explosion.
The first was Mediterranean Café, which technically serves gyros, not shawarma, but I’m lumping together any meat and pita concoction that comes with the option of falafel.
Then, in quick succession came Pita Pit, Persian Grill, Heart of Jerusalem and now Arabica Café — all concentrated in a small part of downtown as if by a mysterious supernatural force. Call it the Tahini Triangle.
Sure, it doesn’t make sense to have so much falafel in one neighborhood when most of the city has so little. Sure, it would make more business sense to set up elsewhere. But the paradoxical cluster doesn’t make the latest addition any less delicious.
Arabica brings something none of the others has: real shawarma prepared in the traditional way.
Instead of the sausagelike frozen gyro-pop found at most places, or the loose chunks of meat served by Heart of Jerusalem, Arabica’s Palestinian owner, Kamel Elwazeir, makes his shawarma fresh daily by marinating thin slices of beef in oil, vinegar and a Lebanese mix of spices. Then he stacks the slices on a tall spike and lets them slow cook as they rotate. When someone orders a shawarma sandwich ($5.95) Elwazeir shaves off the roasted outer bits, holding a soft pita like a mitt to catch the meat.
Then he tops it with other true-to-the-Middle East toppings: fresh parsely; rich, bitter tahini; lettuce; tomatoes; and long, pink, delicious spears of pickled turnip.
Try to find turnips at any other falafel place.
“I’m the only one who makes it the real way, from scratch,” said Elwazeir, a rail-thin bearded man, while working the counter during a recent lunch.
The only thing keeping it from being totally authentic is that you can’t get it with french fries (a lunch snack as popular in Syria and Saudia Arabia as it is around here.)
Everything at Arabica comes as a sandwich or a platter. The platter ($2 extra) comes with hummus or baba ghanoush (worth ordering just so you can say it), sliced pita, and sweet, nutty basmati rice, glowing yellow with turmeric.
Besides beef, Arabica serves chicken shawarma ($5.95), falafel ($5.50) shish kabab ($6.50) and a few lesser-knowns like kofta kabab ($6.50).
Everything is made from scratch.
Those straying from standard shawarma are rewarded. The kofta kabab turns out to be a Middle Eastern meatball, laced with spices, onion and fresh herbs, then grilled on a skewer. Served the standard way, with lettuce, tomato, hummus and pickles, it tastes like a better version of a hamburger.
The shish kabab gives the same treatment to 2-inch cubes of steak. I ordered it because I saw how gorgeous the meat looked when Elwazeir handed one to the guy in front of me. It looked too good to be true. I figured that much prime beef for $6.50 would be dry or over-tenderized, or a disaster in some other way. Instead, it was delicious — moist and full of flavor. It was a little tough. I had to fight for some bites, but otherwise, it was a hit.
Chicken shawarma also comes out moist and delicious. If you were picking shawarma shop based just on meat, this would be the place, but there are other considerations.
The counter service, when Elwazeir is not at the helm, comes with a generous side of apathy. The hummus has a lovely, lemon and garlic character that screams “homemade,” but the falafel is dense, undistinguished and not as crisp as some The pita is on the tough side, and I’ve heard people comment that the tahini is a bit too bitter. Maybe tahini is supposed
The hummus has a lovely, lemon and garlic character that screams “homemade,” but the falafel is dense, undistinguished and not as crisp as some.
to be bitter. Maybe the pita is a traditional style. Maybe it is all part of Elwazeir’s quest for the real thing, but if you don’t adjust a little to the American palate, the quest can end too quickly.
Perhaps the biggest concern is that Arabica often has trouble handling the downtown lunch crush. People at a place like this want to get in and get out. I went in once at noon and, while in line, saw friends sitting at a table waiting for their orders. Ten minutes later, when I had ordered a kofta kabab, I sat down with them. They got their plates in 15 minutes, ate, and then politely dawdled for a while. When I still didn’t have my lunch, they said they’d see me later. What should have been a half-hour lunch took twice as long.
Having so many shawarma places downtown gives diners the advantage of picking a favorite. While I like Arabica a lot, it’s not at the top of my list. The broader verdict will be based on whether Arabica can hang with the crowd.