My wife and I often compete to be “first” with any knowledge of new restaurants opening in the area.
Sometimes we’ll try to surprise each other with a lunch date at a new place if we think the place is especially exciting. When she mentioned that there was a new falafel and shawarma place opening up on 21st St in Norfolk, then named “Hummus Express,” my first question to her was “Do they have a shawarma pole?” “They do,” she said with a smile.
The shawarma pole is the secret weapon of the Middle Eastern street food vendor and it’s the key to creating this Middle Eastern delicacy. On it, layers of turkey and lamb fat rotate in front of a vertical gas broiler. The meat bastes in its own juices until the intensely flavored, caramelized morsels are carved off to be stuffed into a pita or wrapped in a flatbread. It’s related to the Greek Gyro (the real one, not the rubbery spam-like version we mostly find here in the US) and has origins dating back to the Ottoman Empire. This small Norfolk counter-service restaurant, now renamed “Mr. Shawarma,” makes probably the best shawarma I have ever eaten.
But whether called Hummus Express or Mr. Shawarma, the name hides what just might be the most important item on the menu here. After all, the falafel, those round deep-fried balls of spiced ground chickpea, are widely considered the national dish of Israel. You’re often offered one of these balls in a small cup with garlic sauce as a sampler as you stand in line, but make no mistake – accept one of these and you’re well on you way to being hooked. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
I’ve eaten falafel and shawarma all over the world and I have to say the falafel you’re treated to at Mr. Shawarma is hands down the best I’ve ever tasted. Not only is it perfectly fried – crispy on the outside and moist on the inside and packed full flavor, but it’s served in a pillowy pita stuffed with an array of delicious toppings and dripping with even more deeply delicious sauces. You’ll be asked asked if you want a shot of Amba, the tangy, bitter mango sauce for “added flavor.” This, to me, is like adding heat to the sun, but it’s somehow like the perfect cherry on top and not to be missed.
The food at Mr. Shawarma is not just the kind of food that you seek out because you’re hungry for lunch. In fact, this small Norfolk restaurant serving humble Israeli street food puts 21st Street in Ghent squarely on the map off any foodies’ visit to southeastern Virginia. I say this all with full knowledge that I sound like an overly enthusiastic fanboy, but when I eat this, I feel like I’m being treated to thousands of years of Middle Eastern history in every bite. This is the kind of food that you crave, that you dream about, that you become addicted to. This food is dangerous – just ask my 4-year-old. He says he “wants to live there so he can eat it every day.”
I recently sat down with Avishai (Avi) Eli, the owner of Mr. Sharma, to talk about Israeli Street food and falafel in specific.
AltDaily: When did you have your first falafel?
Avi Eli: That’s like asking me when I first drank milk. It’s a really big thing in our culture, where I come from – we eat falafel. Basically the same day an American kid eats a burger, we eat falafel.
I heard you learned from a family restaurant, is this right?
We have one family owned restaurant, also called “Mr. Shawarma,” in Israel. My mom is the head cook. About eight years ago we decided to open our first restaurant in Israel in a very busy area in my hometown of Ashdod. Competition is huge over there because every other shop is a falafel and shawarma place, but I guess people really like the way we make it, because business is booming.
If you can make it in Israel selling falafel, the competition here in Norfolk must be easier, is that true?
There is not really competition here. The reason is people here often cut corners and don’t use the freshest ingredients. I believe if you use the best, freshest ingredients and you pay attention to details, the food will be good and you can taste the results. When you go to a place and there are 200 items on the menu, you must realize that something’s wrong. You cannot keep 200 menu items fresh, it’s just not possible unless you have 200 people in your kitchen. Here, our menu is short and simple because we try to keep everything fresh as possible. This is the reason everything tastes so good.
So tell me what makes a good falafel.
A good falafel doesn’t have too many ingredients. It’s the way you grind it, it’s the spices you use. The cumin we use comes from overseas and it has a different flavor. Good falafel must be crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. The mixture is important. For example, I can tell by looking if it’s too wet or dry. When you eat it in a sandwich,the bread must be really, really soft and creamy. The oil temperature is also very important. You cannot make mistakes. Do you want me to tell you the oil temperature?
I don’t want you to give away any secrets, but there may be some home-cooks interested in this. We’re always told to fry at 350°.
Alright (smiles), 325° is how I cook my falafel. If you fry at 350° it is going to be very golden on the outside and uncooked on the inside. It’s very important to make sure you take it out of the oil in time. It takes no more than a minute and forty or fifty seconds for the falafel to be cooked. There is one thing with my falafel that gives you this texture that when you bite into it you get a crunchy outside and a softness and very fluffy on the inside, but it’s our secret and I can’t give it away. I can give you one hint. Don’t use a food processor to grind the falafel, you must use a meat grinder.
What makes a bad falafel?
If you overcook the falafel, obviously. You also shouldn’t use falafel mixture after a day. Technically you can, but the flavor will not be the same. The oil has to be fresh; if it’s burned you’re not going to get good flavor. And if it’s not ground properly. But basically if you keep your ingredients fresh, you’re going to get good falafel.
I was amazed when I looked at your Yelp! page. Nearly every one of your reviews was over the top good. One of the only bad reviews was from someone frustrated because you weren’t open yet the day he tried to come eat.
See my hours, I changed them because of this bad review. I changed them so we could make sure we’re open when we say we’re going to be. If I get a bad review on Yelp, my guys don’t want to see me when I come in. I care about what every customer writes.
Does size matter?
Of the falafel? Yes, it must be medium sized. Too small will be too crunchy, to big will be crunchy on the outside and not cooked on the inside.
What does it mean to you to bring this food that is very much a part of your family and your culture to a small place like Ghent?
I came to America in 2006 and I was always was craving shawarma and falafel since this is what I eat every day. I used to ask my brother – “how come American’s aren’t eating shawarma and falafel?” He’d tell me, “it’s Americans, they eat hamburgers and stuff” and I was like, no way! You can’t take a bite of shawarma and say a hamburger tastes better.
It’s a good thing that it’s in Ghent, because people are really open minded here. I always knew if people tasted my food, there’s no way they wouldn’t like it. I always knew there was room for our food. It was my dream, first of all because that’s what I want to eat every day, and every lunch and dinner, that’s exactly my menu. My family know, I eat in the restaurant, I eat shawarma.
By 11:30 today, you’re going to see those guys [pointing to his staff] sitting here eating shawarma before customers walk in. And actually, every bite we take every morning when we eat our lunch, we’re always like “oooh.. that’s good!”
For more on Mr. Shawarma, follow them here.