Among food-obsessed Angelenos, shawarma isn't as much a point of contention as, say, ramen or carne asada. At too many of the city's Levantine restaurants, flaccid, flavorless strands of meat pass as properly shaved shawarma almost without protest.
But there are few pleasures as hypnotic as flame-licked shawarma. Behold the spit stacked with lamb or beef or chicken spinning in slow, mesmerizing circles, flecks of caramelized fat basting the meat below. In deft hands, even the bluntest knife will shear the meat as if carving clay.
Shawarma Palace delivers an Israeli interpretation. Alerted to the world by blogger Joshua Lurie of Food GPS, the restaurant is a new stop on Pico Boulevard's kosher corridor, where pizzerias slice pork-less pepperoni and bakeries pile rounds of pillowy pita. Pinchas Sherf and his wife, Ayala, Israeli émigrés who left their home near Tel Aviv in the 1980s, opened Shawarma Palace some five months ago. Pinchas owned a restaurant in Israel, a career he shed for a life here in the construction business. But when the housing bubble burst, it was his shawarma that remained.
At Shawarma Palace, the miracle isn't in the flames — it's in the marinade. Every spit-skewered tower of chicken is rubbed with salt, pepper, vinegar, lemon juice, cumin, curry and amba, a Middle Eastern saucy pickled mango condiment fortified with turmeric, mustard and chiles. This is a military-grade marinade, one from which you'll still feel the fallout two days later, your pores exuding the smoky scent of cumin and the penetrating perfume of curry spices.
With a few gentle swipes of the knife, a heap of chicken tumbles from the spit, immediately scooped up and tossed onto an adjacent flat-top griddle. The shawarma here is a triptych of textures: shards of chicken rendered as crisp as bacon, tender lengths of thigh swollen with juice and almost airy wisps of meat that quickly dissolve into the chicken-flavored ether. Some days, there's lamb shawarma, a more mildly spiced option that relies instead on the essence of the meat itself.
The menu revolves around various permutations of the shawarma plate. The signature Palace plate piles on enough meat for three along with dill-flecked rice, crusty falafel, garlicky hummus and a cucumber salad. But there are no hard and fast rules to the combinations. The restaurant's dozen-plus sides are all there behind the counter: slaw-like strands of purple cabbage, a combustible carrot salad alight with harissa, wedges of eggplant sautéed until they all but become baba ghanouj. Pinchas and Ayala will gladly add or subtract however many sides you think suit the shawarma, regardless of what your order prescribed.
The same applies to the shawarma sandwiches. Customization is key, starting with your choice of hand-held vessel: sturdy laffa flatbread, airy pocketed pita or a bready French roll. Fillings are suggested, but what gets rolled up with or squeezed in alongside all that chicken or lamb is ultimately up to you.
Shawarma Palace extends its reach with a variety of other Mediterranean sandwiches. There's the Tunisian tuna sandwich stuffed with oil-slicked fish, slices of hard-boiled egg, smashed potatoes, olives, pickles and a scoop of cucumber salad. Falafel naturally arrives packed into a pita, but there's also the vegetarian sabich, eggplant and hard-boiled egg with a smear of hummus, cucumber salad and more of that smoldering harissa. There are kosher burgers and a few panini, but that energy is better spent on the basket of fresh fruit loaded with pineapples and mangoes and bananas all waiting to be juiced.
But it's always back to that transcendent shawarma. The restaurant has aroused a conversation of what superior shawarma is and should be, and with that has taken it to previously uninhabited heights. This being Los Angeles, that also means to the tops of rigid tostadas and a couple of neat little tacos.
LOCATION: 8879 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 777-0402
PRICE: Shawarma and combination plates, $7.99 to $14.95; sandwiches, $5.99 to $9.99; soups, salads and sides, $3.50 to $5.99.
DETAILS: Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday, one hour after sunset to 11 p.m. Saturday. Street parking. Credit cards accepted.