Ask a Springfielder where to take your car when it breaks down and they’ll tell you to go see Mike at AA Auto Repair on the corner of Main and Sixth Street. Ask them where to get the best shawarma in town and they’ll send you to Wafaa & Mike’s, the Middle Eastern restaurant nextdoor owned by the same Syrian-American family.
When it first opened in 2009, it was a place to get a gyro or falafel sandwich to rival the most massive big-as-your-face burrito. While most Middle Eastern places in town at the time offered up passable versions of ambiguously Mediterranean cuisine, the fare at Wafaa & Mike’s Cafe felt more like the real deal from day one.
Back then, their son-in-law Hussain Alabed helped them develop recipes from abroad as he prepared to immigrate to the U.S. In Damascus where Hussain studied English, and across Levant, shawarma–not gyro–was the street food of choice. So when he took over the kitchen in 2014 and began to put his stamp on the restaurant, he made it a point to include the ever-popular dish on his new menu, whether the neighborhood was ready for it or not. It turned out to be a wise move as it’s now far-and-away the most popular dish. “I knew it was good when we started serving it but I didn’t know it would reach this point,” he tells me. “People try it once and they come back for it again and again.”
While it likely didn’t take early man long to come up with the idea of cooking meat on a spit over an open flame after they first discovered fire, the the vertical rotisserie associated with doner kebab and its offspring, gyro, shawarma, and al pastor, first appeared in the Ottoman Empire (modern-day Turkey) during the 19th century. These days, it’s as common on the streets of Syria, Lebanon, and as far as Israel, as the taco is across the southern part of North America.
Hussain’s shawarma may be grilled rather than roasted, but he cuts it in such a way that makes that idiosyncrasy virtually indistinguishable. There’s no set standard of what spices at what ratio truly constitute an authentic shawarma blend so recipes vary from country to country, region to region, kitchen to kitchen. Cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, paprika, and black pepper are common but clove, allspice and ginger make frequent appearances as well. Hussain’s standard version is dominant in cardamom, oregano, and curry, but where he really makes his mark is the house special Wafaa Shawarma which adds red onion, cilantro and most notably, a heavy dose of sumac to the mix. These bright red berries which grow rampantly across the Middle East lend a sour pop of acidity when dried and ground to a coarse powder.
As a platter it comes with a giant piece of fried tortilla-like bread that you can’t help but tear into pieces in order to scoop up the succulent slices of perfectly seasoned chicken. I like mine with a side of fattoush, a salad made from lettuce and fried pita that also leans heavy on the sumac, and of course, hummus. Don’t sleep on the house iced tea either.
This Bold Bites feature originally appeared in Void Magazine’s April 2021 issue.