“If there was a better place for shawarma, I wouldn’t have opened this restaurant. I would just go to eat there,” said Mohammad Abutaha of Shawarmaji, a new standing pop-up at Forage Kitchen in Oakland. According to the Oakland-based chef, “being Arab in the Bay Area is difficult because there is no good shawarma.”
Before you go on the defensive on behalf of your favorite local Middle Eastern restaurant, hear Abutaha out. The chef grew up in Amman, Jordan, where he says shawarma is the street food that everyone eats. It’s common in Amman, he said, to find multiple vendors in the same area serving their own special recipe for shawarma, often lamb or chicken that’s marinated, piled high into a cone-shaped mass and slowly cooked on a vertical roasting spit, then shaved off in thin slices to order. After moving to the Bay Area in 2011, Abutaha was unable to find any restaurants making shawarma with the flavors and served in the styles they do back home and he sorely missed it.
What he did find were restaurants that made the dish more “like a burrito stuffed with salad, vegetables and hummus,” which to Abutaha, “take away from what it should be.” He compares his ideal shawarma wrap to a slider, that is, minimal in toppings, with the meat being the main focus. He also prefers it rolled thin. Not finding any versions like this locally, about two years ago he bought his own vertical broiler and began experimenting with recipes to make his own. He watched Youtube videos to learn the proper technique to build a spit. He also went back to Jordan and ate a lot of shawarma, paying close attention to the spices, flavors and techniques used at his favorite spots. He shared some of his first takes at a friend’s birthday party. A common refrain from Arab friends that day: “We haven’t had this flavor in so long.”
Although Abutaha only started cooking professionally a few years ago, owning his own restaurant has been his dream since childhood. But “Middle Eastern family pressure,” a love for physics and working with cars pushed Abutaha to pursue studies in mechanical engineering instead of culinary pursuits. He moved to the Bay Area to study at San Francisco State University. “The goal was to be an engineer and make enough money to then open a restaurant,” he said.
Things didn’t quite work out that way. Realizing traditional schooling wasn’t the path for him, he jumped into the restaurant world. Without any experience, he started as a dishwasher at Portola Kitchen in Portola Valley. And a few months later, he worked as a line cook at Maven, a restaurant-lounge in San Francisco, where under the nurturing tutelage of chef Isaac Miller, Abutaha said he learned everything from how ingredients go together to how to act in the kitchen. Following his time there, he cooked at The Village Pub, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Woodside.
“I started realizing who I am and that I wanted to eat stuff that I used to eat in Jordan and share that with people.” — Mohammad Abutaha
However, it wasn’t until he started working with Reem Assil, first at her farmers market stand and then at her Fruitvale bakery, that he began to hone in on the type of food he really wanted to cook. “I started realizing who I am and that I wanted to eat stuff that I used to eat in Jordan and share that with people.”
After Reem’s, he worked as a sous chef at another lauded Middle Eastern restaurant, Noosh in San Francisco, but left after a legal dispute between the owners and the chefs led to the restaurant’s closure and then its reopening under a new executive chef. “I didn’t want to work in an environment like that,” Abutaha said about the experience.
Without a job, he decided to pick up where he left off by introducing Jordan-style shawarma to the Bay Area. Abutaha started Shawarmaji as a Sunday pop-up at Reem’s, but in the meantime, he started looking for a restaurant space, and that’s when he connected with Forage Kitchen. Shawarmaji has been serving out of Forage’s public-facing café space since Feb. 16.
Shawarmaji’s menu is short and simple, which is best for the small operation. There are two sandwiches — a shawarma wrap and a falafel sandwich (both $10) — and fries, which you can get loaded with chicken, turnip and cucumber pickles and toum (garlic sauce) ($12). There’s one dessert, the liquid halawa shot (more about that later), and on our last visit, Abutaha had added a baby kale salad ($10), with fennel, pickles, herbs and pomegranate molasses, with the option of adding either shawarma and toum or falafel and tahini.
The shawarma is made with chicken (Abutaha hopes to offer lamb soon, too), which is marinated in yogurt and flavored with a seven-spice blend. Abutaha toasts his spices, which adds a smoky, slightly bitter flavor to the sweet-leaning blend. For the wrap ($10), he shaves the meat from the spit to order, adds homemade pickles and a generous slathering of potent toum, tightly rolls it up into a slender cylinder using a large flour tortilla – yes, a tortilla — and presses it on the flat top with a cast-iron press. Abutaha said in Jordan the wraps are often smaller, but there are places that serve the long version, “missile-style” like he does.
As for the tortilla, Abutaha said it’s the best substitute he could find locally for shrak, a thin Bedouin flatbread made on a saaj. In Jordan, his mom, who is American and was raised in Los Angeles, would make tacos for the family using shrak in place of tortillas; he found the substitution works the other way too. Unlike lavash, which becomes brittle when griddled, flour tortillas retain more moisture like shrak, giving the wrap a pliant, chewy texture that gets a toasty crispiness when pressed.
Shawarmaji offers two add-ons for the wrap. “Rabieh-style” ($1 extra), includes cheddar and shatta (hot sauce). It’s named after the neighborhood in Amman, the location of Abutaha’s favorite shawarma spot, Al Khal, which offers the cheese and hot sauce combination. “Aboudi-style” ($2 extra), includes fries stuffed inside the wrap, as Abutaha’s Saudi friend — the namesake of this style — prefers it. I tried the wrap Rabieh-style and enjoyed the extra dimension that the melty layer of orange cheddar added, but I wished the shatta had a little more heat.
As for Abutaha, he prefers to eat his sandwich as a plate. The Shawarma Arabi plate ($15) cuts a simplified version of the sandwich into several small pieces. The sandwich bites are accompanied with a large dollop of toum for dipping, pickles, olives and a side of fries.
Shawarmaji’s falafel sandwich is also noteworthy. Abutaha said Jordanians often eat falafel on khobz hamam, or French rolls. He serves his falafel on crusty bread sourced from Bui Phong, a Vietnamese bakery in Oakland, adding a cucumber and tomato tahini salad, shredded red cabbage, mint and slices of lemon with the rind intact to add “pop, a nice burst of lemon flavor,” he explained. The sandwich is pressed before serving, and diners can choose to add fried eggplant and potatoes for $2 more.
The sole dessert, the liquid halawa, is a creation from Abutaha, inspired by a tahini horchata that was served at Noosh. It’s made with tahini, rose water and condensed milk, then topped with chopped pistachios and ghazl el banat, a fluffy, gossamer Arab-style cotton candy made with halawa (or as many know it, halva). The drink is thick like a milkshake and very sweet with a heavy floral flavor from the rose water. While it comes in a shot glass size serving, its intensity makes it better to sip slowly rather than knock back all at once.
Shawarmaji’s busiest days are Friday and Saturday nights when “a lot of the Arab diaspora that lives in the greater Bay Area comes out,” Abutaha said. Once a month on Saturdays, Shawarmaji invites DJs to spin. Abutaha said there aren’t many clubs that cater to the Arab community, so he’s happy to provide the space to eat, gather and dance.
Now that he’s opened his first restaurant in Oakland, Abutaha said he has a few more goals he’d like to reach. He hopes to add a brunch program at Shawarmaji, where he may serve his version of sausage and eggs: sujuk (a dry, spicy sausage) shawarma and an egg and toum sandwich. Down the line, he wants to open two more locations in the Peninsula and in San Jose. And eventually, he plans to return to Jordan to open a restaurant there.
Abutaha feels a pull to return home, to cook with Jordanian ingredients and techniques, and to contribute to and grow the culinary scene there. But for now, he still sees himself as a beginner.
“Hopefully in the next 10 years, I’ll be somebody who can call themselves a shawarma master,” Abutaha said. “I still have a lot to learn.”
Shawarmaji is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Wednesday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Thursday through Saturday; closed Sunday.