If there’s a preferred dish for superheroes who have just finished saving the world, it’s shawarma. (Need your proof? Sit through the closing credits of “Marvel’s The Avengers” again.)
So when the call came that City Pulse readers needed to know who had the best shawarma in town, an elite team of crackerjack foodies banded together to save Lansing from …. well, nothing really. Just to find out who had the best shawarma, via this month’s Food Fight.
The backstory: Shawarma is a traditional Middle Eastern method of meat preparation in which seasoned strips of beef, chicken, lamb or goat are pounded flat and slow-grilled on a revolving spit — the word “shawarma” itself means “turning” —with shavings cut and served in a sandwich or on a plate. We narrowed the list to six of Greater Lansing’s more prominent Middle Eastern restaurants, with the dining experience being graded on a scale of 1 to 10, based on taste, authenticity, service, atmosphere and cost per portion size, with bonus points assessed for a variable X-factor. Decisions were based on either chicken or beef shawarma, depending on availability.
Woody’s Oasis: 5.2 out of 10
We skipped the downtown East Lansing restaurant in favor of the company’s flagship location on Trowbridge Road, after we were assured by a staffer at the Grand River location that the shawarmas were identical (the Trowbridge Woody’s delivers many of its Mediterranean dishes to the Grand River store). At the Trowbridge location, we encountered a “tough,” “stew-like” concoction that was “overly onion-laden” and “swamped in juices.” Several of our judges agreed that both beef and chicken varieties “tasted like Mexican food,” with one suggesting an overuse of the spice annatto. Although the beef reminded one of us of “Salisbury steak” and the chicken tasted like it “fell out of a fajita,” the $6.50 price for an 8-ounce side was the real deal-breaker. The fact that it was baked and not cooked on a spit cost the location serious authenticity points.
Woody’s Oasis, 1050 Trowbridge Road, East Lansing
Abu Sahara: 6.1 out of 10
No rotisserie here, either — sadly, it turns out that baked or grilled shawarma is actually the norm in Lansing, which someone in the group said was “inexcusable, given the fact that we’re less than 90 miles from Dearborn,” which has the largest Middle Eastern population in the Western Hemisphere. “Lacking any kind of balance” and tasting “like peppered chicken,” the best we could say about this “bland” but “attractive”-looking dish was that it did at least have the best value ($2 for 8 ounces). Apparently, Abu Sahara has a “pretty good lunch buffet,” which some of our judges have enjoyed in the past, but we were still scratching our heads at the décor, which combined Tiffany lamps with a mural of the Sahara desert: “This is what Denny’s looks like in Qatar,” one of us mused.
Abu Sahara, 3536 Meridian Crossings Drive, Okemos
Jerusalem Bakery: 6.5 out of 10
The “charming,” “homey” location is basically “a small grocery store with three tables,” and the service was “courteous and personal.” However, some were turned off by the “overuse of curry” in the chicken and found “something missing” in the “chewy” beef, although both were still “flavorful.” The $4 price tag put it in the middle of the pack for value, but nearly everyone in the group picked up a unique beverage or found some unique food item in the store to attract their attention. Certainly a place worth a repeat visit.
Jerusalem Bakery, 1456 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing
New Aladdin: 6.9 out of 10
The baked beef was described as “fall-apart tender” and “wonderful, with a spicy aftertaste,” while the “super-juicy” chicken was “not what I’m used to, but still very good.” The $5.50 price of the beef was a little high for our tastes, but the “awesome mural” (really, you have to check it out) made it a “thoroughly enjoyable experience.” And that garlic sauce was “intense”: “It’s still dancing on my tongue half an hour later,” said one of the judges.
Still, baked shawarma just didn’t cut it.
New Aladdin’s Restaurant, 300 Clippert St. Suite 7, Frandor Shopping Center, Lansing
Sultan’s Delight: 8.6 out of 10
Finally — a rotisserie! The “subtle, smoky” chicken (no beef here) was “100 percent authentic,” but “not as spicy” as some us had hoped for. The “marvelous flavor” and the “pleasantly crunchy” texture more than compensated for the “slightly dry” meat. Sultan’s Delight is still a pretty new restaurant, making the interior a little too “sterile” for a couple of us, but this is downtown East Lansing — give it a couple months for the students to make it feel lived in. At $2.39 for 8 ounces, this was still a “great price for an awesome meal.” As for the X-factor? One word: gelato. Our entire group did an impromptu taste testing of the various flavors for a pleasant palate cleanser.
Sultan’s Delight, 235 Albert Ave., East Lansing
Sultan’s Restaurant: 8.7 out of 10
Narrowly squeaking past its new baby brother in East Lansing, the original Sultan’s in Hannah Plaza took the honor of best shawarma in town. Check out these accolades: “hot and fresh,” “succulent,” “yummy,” “awesomely juicy,” “the way shawarma is supposed to be made” and “great price” ($2.39 for 8 ounces). The only downside was that Sultan’s doesn’t serve beef, but the chicken was good enough to cover that base. One of our team is in love with Sultan’s “amazing” bread, which is made in-house; sadly, it was not available when we were there. What a great excuse for a return trip in the near future.
Sultan’s Restaurant, 4790 S. Hagadorn Road, East Lansing
It’s no coincidence that the only places in town that use a rotisserie to cook their shawarma — the three Sultan’s locations (including the lunchtime-only Express location in downtown Lansing) — are the ones that were rated highest in taste and authenticity. Of course rules and traditions were made to be broken, but when you’re dealing with a hallowed food item such as shawarma, it’s best not do anything that could get a purist angry.
You wouldn’t like a purist when you get one angry.