Dipping shawarma into sauce

While we like to think that we’re true connoisseurs of cuisine and we perhaps try to convince ourselves that we’ve known about a particular dish before it becomes fully mainstream, we should face facts. Depending on your culture, a lot of us never even heard of "shawarma" until we saw "The Avengers" back in 2012. Today though, it’s almost as if we’ve always had this Middle Eastern street food staple in the US, right up there with tacos and hot dogs.

Shawarma is traditionally a rotisserie-roasted meat mixed with a variety of spices such as cayenne, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, cardamom, turmeric, and allspice. While this method bears a similar resemblance to the just as well-known Greek-inspired gyro, the two are very different. Not only is there a difference in terms of spices, but also in the choice of meats.

While gyro is most commonly made with lamb and sometimes beef, shawarma, while also using lamb or beef, also includes poultry like chicken or even turkey. Whether it’s served as a wrap or just as is in a styrofoam tray, every state in the U.S. now has its own shawarma joint. The trick then, is locating the most hands-down, no-argument best-of-the-best shawarma in the country.

Naf Naf Grill – Chicago

Naf Naf shop Storefront

The Naf Naf Grill chain, found within the Windy City, has become so popular that it made a Foursquare top 15 shawarma list not once but twice due to two separate locations getting an entry. And with good reason, as Chicago locals have nothing but sheer praise for Naf Naf.

One reviewer described their experience at the Naf Naf Grill located at West Washington St, right between North Franklin and North Wacker Dr, and asserted that it offers the best shawarma in the region.

Another reviewer commented on the freshly made pita bread and noted that the shawarma in pita is truly amazing. One cheeky reviewer mentioned that they ate the whole shawarma and quoted Arnold shawarmaneger to say, "I’ll be back." Well, if it’s good enough for someone creating a food-based pun out of a popular action star, then it’s got to be good.

Lava Shawarma – Manhattan

Plate of shawarma with fries

Not only is the best kind of shawarma delicious, but it also won’t burn through your wallet. Lava Shawarma, located on the Lower East side of Manhattan Island, offers that perfect combination of great food at a fair price. That looks to be the consensus with most of their clientele, especially those posting their Yelp reviews. One reviewer says they go there four times a week and that the shawarma is juicy and delicious each time.

While relying on this one reviewer only may be a gross exaggeration, at the very least, it underlines just how much they love the place. Another reviewer recommends this place if you’re in the mood for incredible food at an affordable price. Considering that shawarma is a classic Middle Eastern street food, it should at the very least hit those three key factors in good street cuisine: High flavor, copious servings, and a very filling, satisfying meal. It’s a good thing that Lava Shawarma nails all three key aspects with aplomb.

Shawarma Guys – San Diego

Serving of vegan shawarma

You’ve got to be a fairly major smash hit if you’re taking first place in Yelp’s top place to eat in the US, and you’ve also got to be turning even more heads if your first-place-winning restaurant is actually a food truck! But that’s what happened for Shawarma Guys, a beloved food truck typically found parked in the South Park area along Grape Street. The Shawarma Guys has a total of 503 Yelp reviews, granting it a 5-star rating. The truck boasts a wait time of over an hour for customers to try out their Mediterranean-inspired menu.

But as is the common rule when it comes to food stands of every shape and size, if you’ve got a massive line forming, then the food is almost guaranteed to be really good. Whether you want to pocket wrap shawarma on the go or are in the mood to sit down and have a full shawarma dinner, Shawarma Guys have got you more than covered.

One reviewer notes that Shawarma Guys offers the best shawarma and falafel they have ever tasted. What really stands out with Shawarma Guys is the choice of meat, namely, the use of Wagyu beef, which in case you’re unaware, is a Japanese-style beef highly prized for its deep marbling, meaning more fat within the meat, and thus a truly flavorful shawarma.

Marouch – East Hollywood

Plate of shawarma with pita

While shawarma still seems like it’s only just entered the US lexicon for tasty food, this dish has been local far longer than we realize. Take Marouch, located on Santa Monica Boulevard in East Hollywood: It’s considered one of the oldest Armenian/Lebanese restaurants in the whole city, as it was established all the way back in 1982.

Still, it’s remained a part of the Hollywood restaurant scene, with The Infatuation praising the mezze and the muhammara and referring to the joint as an "institution." Even though it’s part of a Hollywood strip mall, Marouch garners an 8.8 review from The Infatuation, making it the highest-rated shawarma joint in the city.

Though beef is not a meat that is commonly used in shwarma when compared to lamb or chicken, Marouch’s pride and joy is its barbecued beef shawarma, complete with the made-in-house marinade. Remaining on the map for the LA dining scene, in Hollywood no less, is no small feat for Marouch. It’s well-regarded enough to make it on the LA Times list of 101 best restaurants in Los Angeles.

Supreme Shawarma – Chandler

Supreme Shawarma restaurant

The Arizona Central news website declared Supreme Shawarma the only place where one can find authentic shawarma, claiming that the restaurant is serving the kind of shawarma only found on the streets of Dubai or Muscat. Supreme Shawarma is located in a strip mall between Ray and Rural roads. It focuses heavily on its key dish while also supplying customers with all the traditional toppings and accouterment, not to mention its own seasoned fries.

In fact, this glowing review of the restaurant has the reviewer going so far as to say Supreme Shawarma not only has the best shawarma in metro Phoenix but perhaps the very best along the entire West Coast! A bold statement indeed, but one not made without precedent. Supreme Shawarma’s authenticity comes from its adherence to shawarma’s very specific cooking methods. That means no ovens or microwaves are used in the creation of shawarma.

Much like gyro, shawarma is made with the old-school method of spit roasting, with a whole cone of slowly rotating meat crisped and charred over an electric grill. The result is a sandwich, wrap, or full plate of meat that is charred to a smoky sweetness.

Falafel & Grill – Chicago

Shawarma wrap and toum

In one food blogger’s quest to obtain the best shawarma in the entire city of Chicago, New City writer Rebecca Holland found herself making repeated trips to Falafel and Grill. It’s located on Milwaukee Avenue, and it boasts simple, no-frills yet always freshly made traditional Middle-Eastern cuisine for hungry Chicagoans.

Holland’s article zeroes in on Falafel and Grill’s perfectly prepared chicken shawarma, which is served thinly sliced off the roast so that every single bite has the charred goodness. It also helps that the shawarma uses just the right amount of balanced seasoning, which is not too sweet and not too savory.

As for toppings, Falafel and Grill doesn’t skimp out as it uses a well-covered spread of toum (a very garlicky mayonnaise) in its wraps, along with pickles so perfectly cut that they can easily be eaten with a single bite.

Customers in and outside of Chicago seem to agree with Holland, with the restaurant earning a majority of 5-star reviews on Yelp by a very wide margin. One reviewer said that Falafel & Grill is red-hot, which is high praise given that the reviewer is located as far outside of Chicago as Long Beach, CA!

Marrakech Moroccan Cafe and Grill – Cincinnati

Plate of shawarma meat

Sometimes it’s the little details that can help one restaurant stand out from the rest when it comes to a now-ubiquitous dish like shawarma. You can find that ever-so-slight attention to detail at the Marrakech Moroccan Cafe and Grill, where its method of serving up food garnered it the top spot in City Beat’s favorite spots to find a shawarma sandwich.

If you haven’t had one, a shawarma sandwich isn’t what you think is, as you might be picturing a pile of meat between two slices of bread. Typically, your shawarma sandwich is served as a wrap with pita bread. But what differentiates Marrakech Moroccan Cafe and Grill from other eateries is how it utilizes the pita bread.

Instead of a simple wrap, the pita is opened up and turned into a pocket, and filled with shawarma and other ingredients. According to the City Beat article, the pocket is far more manageable and also prevents losing precious stuffing mid-bite.

Nour Al-Sham – Paterson

Platter of shawarma

Mohammad Hlal immigrated to North America with his wife and children after leaving their home due to the escalation of the Syrian war. They would eventually find themselves in Paterson, New Jersey, where Hlal now serves what’s arguably been dubbed "The World’s Best Shawarma" by NJ.com.

Nour Al-Sham is now considered a modern American success story as Hlal and his family not only re-established themselves with the restaurant, but they also created something that is loved and celebrated by their fellow New Jersey residents as they give back to a supportive community by hiring locally.

But how’s the food? According to reviews on Yelp, it’s very, very good, as it currently rocks 5 and a half stars in terms of overall reviews. One reviewer writes that this is the best place to get traditional shawarma in New Jersey and that the food is always fresh, delicious, and never fails to disappoint. Another reviewer even goes further and asserts that the execution of the shawarma at this joint is absolutely perfect.

The reviewer cites the specialized preparation of the shawarma and the sauces that are included with the dish. This reviewer also eschews the pita bread that is used for the shawarma wrap, noting its unique flavor.

Hamido – Dearborn

Serving of chicken shawarma

According to Dorothy Hernandez of Detroit’s Eater website, shawarma is as representative of Detroit as the coney dog and the square pizza. But where does one find the best chicken shawarma in Dearborn, Michigan?

Hernandez, along with several other contributors to Eater, decided to answer the question with a Summer "shawarma crawl" that entailed visiting several well-known establishments. The results of this excursion finally led them to Hamido, to which they gave a perfect score of four out of four.

While Hamido has long wait times, the shawarmas are very much worth the wait. In fact, according to Hernandez, they waited the longest amount of time to be served at Hamido, which should go to show just how good the food has to be. And while it was a close race, Hamido just edged its way to the number one spot because of the hot and perfectly charred chicken and the garlic sauce, which added just the right amount of flavor.

Mama’s Shawarma – Los Angeles

Serving of cut up shawarma

Mama’s Shawarma was established by a mother and son mother and son cooking duo who are immigrants from Damascus. After coming to the United States, they brought their combined expertise in shawarma cooking to L.A. As a team, Krstein Kantarji handles the preparation of the recipes, while her son, Chef Eyad Kawak, takes care of carving the roasted shawarma. Their enterprise has been so successful that they’ve expanded from their restaurant into an additional food truck.

Mama’s Shawarma specializes in both beef and chicken shawarma, which is pressed on a plancha grille and sliced into sections a la Arabic style. The shawarma is served with pickled vegetables, salad, tahini, and seasoned fries. According to an LA Magazine article, both mother and son are focusing on bringing Syrian cuisine to their American home to keep their culture alive through their food. Kawak wants everyone to remember the taste of the shawarma found in Syria.

Furn Saj – Los Angeles

beef shawarma wrap dipped in sauce

Lebanese chef Charlie Succar studied at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts-Scottsdale before honing his trade at the Radisson Hotel Chatsworth and Sara Lee (via Eater Los Angeles). Since 2013, however, Charlie has been serving up what could very well be the best shawarma in the city at Furn Saj, a bakery and restaurant he owns with his brother Mel. It’s a bold claim, but one backed up by other outlets, including The Infatuation.

Furn Saj operates two shawarma spits, one each for beef and chicken, the latter of which contains layers of fat to keep the meat juicy. You can get a plate of shawarma to enjoy at Furn Saj, but you might be best off getting a wrap in order to enjoy the restaurant’s famous bread. After all, the word "saj" refers to a thin flatbread that’s popular in the Middle East. At the Los Angeles restaurant, the bread is cooked on a griddle until it’s singed yet still malleable. Then on go the layers of spiced meat, pickled cucumbers, tomatoes, and garlic sauce to create a dish that is truly delectable.

Iyad’s Syrian Grill – Seattle

shawarma chicken salad

Vashon Island may not well-known outside of the greater Seattle area, but if you’re on the hunt for the best shawarma in the U.S., this plot of land in the Puget Sound needs to be on your itinerary. The island is home to Iyad’s Syrian Grill, a Middle Eastern food truck operated by Iyad Alati and his wife Safa Jneidi (via Eater Seattle).

The family hails from Aleppo, Syria, a city with a storied culinary history. When war broke out in their homeland, the family fled to Turkey. In 2017, they migrated to the Seattle suburbs, where Alati enrolled in a culinary arts program. Two years later, the couple opened a food cart, where they serve delectable lamb, chicken, and vegetarian shawarma, among other things. Unlike many other shawarma purveyors in the U.S. who stick close to the dish’s Middle Eastern roots, Alati and Jneidi have allowed themselves to dip into the wider culinary influences they found in their new home in the Pacific Northwest. Most notable among these new ingredients is the inclusion of mushroom, which adds a uniquely savory and earthy flavor to the dish.

Going by popularity, whatever the culinary duo is adding is working. The food cart has developed a dedicated following, so much so that Alati and Jneidi are hoping to one day open a brick-and-mortar restaurant.

Middle East Bakery & Grocery – Chicago

shawafel wrap cut in two

Since 1981, Middle East Bakery & Grocery has been providing a place to indulge for Chicagoans who are on the hunt for worldly flavors. For most of that time, the shop simply sold Middle Eastern grocery staples and freshly baked bread. In 2014, however, the store added a café to its operation, where you’ll find some of the best shawarma in the country.

The restaurant’s menu has traditional beef and chicken shawarma, but of particular note is the "shawafel" wrap. This culinary creation consists of falafel and chicken shawarma, topped with hummus, lettuce, pickle, and tahini sauce. The end result is a garlicky, savory, creamy, crunchy concoction that one writer for the Chicago Reader claims is the best sandwich they’ve ever eaten. Such a proclamation would be of note anywhere in the country, but even more so in a city known for some seriously famous sandwiches. But the shawafel wrap, as well as Middle East Bakery & Grocery’s other offerings, are so good that the Chicago Reader has even included the eatery on its list of the city’s most iconic restaurants.