On New Year’s Eve, I encountered an unexpected shawarma preparation in Manhattan’s East Village.
Not that there’s anything unexpected about shawarma in the city. New York is home to one of the fastest growing Arab-American populations in the country, currently estimated at 152,000, so it should be no surprise that the greater metropolitan area has quite a few restaurants dedicated to showcasing the diverse flavors of the Middle East and North Africa.
But I didn’t order my New Year’s shawarma at a Middle Eastern establishment. I ordered it at Empellon Cocina, a restaurant run by Alex Stupak, previously the avant-garde pastry chef at Alinea in Chicago and the now-closed WD~50 in New York.
Empellon takes its cues from the culinary traditions of Mexico, though there’s a historical explanation as to why there’s a dish with Middle Eastern influence on his menu. Tens of thousands of Middle Easterners migrated to Mexico in the late 19th and 20th centuries, during the final decades of the Ottoman Empire. Iraqis — and Lebanese — brought with them the technique of spit-roasted mutton to Puebla. Locals eventually swapped lamb for pork and pita for tortillas. So began the story of tacos arabes.
Stupak references the original tacos arabes with his spectacular shawarma. He layers thinly-sliced lamb shoulder into a terrine, and seasons it with cumin, coriander, Mexican oregano, cinnamon, cardamom, black pepper, Maggi sauce (which originated in Switzerland), smoked paprika, and vadouvan. He then cooks it slowly until the interior is as soft as a marshmallow, then sears it on a flattop so all the exterior nooks and crannies are as burnished as a griddle-cooked burger. He serves it with a pile of corn tortillas and charges $28.
He pairs the meat with a mound of seasoned rice, a side of shredded iceberg, a pile of pickled cauliflower, and a slathering of white sauce and red sauce — more or less the components of New York’s halal-style street meat, typically sold curbside by no-nonsense Egyptian guys for about six bucks.
I stuffed the lamb and iceberg into a tortilla, using the watery lettuce to quell the aroma of the funky flesh. Throw a little rice in there and that’s about as close you’ll come to a burrito at Empellon. It’s damn good and it feeds two.
Such praise isn’t meant to overlook all the great shawarma available outside of a high-profile Mexican restaurant run by a white guy from Massachusetts. But despite a touch of sumac and saffron here, some za’atar and tahini there, and hummus everywhere, it can be more difficult to find meaningful adaptations of Middle Eastern of North African fare outside of New York’s Middle Eastern or North African restaurants.
Empellon Cocina’s shawarma-halal hybrid is a big deal because guests who drop by the for the guacamole or chicken tender tacos might end up trying a Levantine-Egyptian-New York dish that they wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise.
David Chang has similar plans for a few dishes at his restaurants, most of which are still located in New York. “Studying the delicious food of Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan & Yemen,” he tweeted last month, a few weeks after President Donald Trump issued his first immigration ban. “Plan to see more of these food cultures on Momofuku menus.”
When the city’s brasseries, small plates places, and high-end restaurants break out of their Western European comfort zones, they tend not to dabble in Lebanese, Moroccan, or Iranian fare with the same gusto as they’re experimenting with the cuisines of Japan, Thailand, Korea, or Mexico — with a couple notable exceptions, like La Vara, Boulud Sud, Nix, and Dirty French. I wish there weren’t so few.
Now is the time to mainstream less-familiar cuisines as we’re seeing from Stupak and Chang, especially with Trump reinstating a variation on the immigration ban this week. As Facebook news feeds and media bubbles increasingly reflect a hyper-specific version of the world we want to see rather than the larger world as it is, now would be a great time for chefs to display that on the plate.