"You ever tried shawarma? There's a shawarma joint about two blocks from here. I don't know what it is but I want to try it." -Robert Downey Jr., "The Avengers"
After the billion-dollar success of Marvel's "The Avengers" this summer, one word was on the tip of everyone's tongue: shawarma. As Iron Man's go-to post-game snack, it became the center of attention when director Joss Whedon added a last-minute stinger after the end credits of the entire team noshing on it at a decimated restaurant. We decided to go to a few of our own favorite New York City Mediterranean joints to see how the movie has effected the town's bustling shawarma industry.
Fares Zeideia, or Freddy as everyone calls him, runs a food cart on the corner of 30th St & Broadway in Astoria, Queens where he is known as "The King of Falafel and Shawarma." He had been a self-proclaimed king since he began in 2002, but in 2010 he was officially crowned when he won both the Vendy Award and People's Choice Award. People stand in lines sometimes upwards of ten minutes just to grab a bite, treated to free falafel samples while they wait, but when "The Avengers" came out in May there was a virtual stampede to try some superhero grub.
"It had an impact on the first-timers on the shawarma if they'd never tried it before," said Freddy. "I had my steady customers before that, but a lot of people came out of nowhere. The first four or five weeks [after the movie came out], forget about it, I was running out of shawarma by 3 or 4 o'clock."
The Shawarma Grill at 368 3rd Ave has food and a juice bar, but despite worker Sam insisting otherwise people still mistake this as the restaurant where Earth's Mightiest Heroes chowed down.
"A lot of people were talking about it and many people came here asking about shawarma," Sam said. "Everybody thinks this is the store, but this is not the store from the movie. Business went up a little bit after the movie, not much, but a lot of people ask about it."
Haim, the chef at The Hummus & Pita Co. in the Chelsea neighborhood (585 6th Ave), has definitely felt the impact tremors of The Hulk and Co. at his restaurant.
"Before they didn't know about the shawarma, they only know about the gyro," said Haim. "'Don't Mess With the Zohan' made hummus famous, and the same with the shawarma in 'The Avengers.'"
Although Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark can be a bit lackadaisical about certain things (it did take him three-hours to make an omelette in "Iron Man 2"), many New Yorkers thought it ridiculous that someone who owns a frickin' building in the city wouldn't know what shawarma is. Haim thinks that aspect of "The Avengers" is pretty realistic, at least moreso than legions of Chitauri warriors flying through the city.
"Millions of people live here," Haim told us. "A lot of them know about the food from different countries, but most people don't know about the shawarma. In '87, I came to America from Israel where hummus is everywhere, but people didn't know it here. Now it's on the supermarket shelf."
Sam from Shawarma Grill thinks most New Yorkers know better, and filled us in on what the heck shawarma is exactly, besides delicious.
"A lot of New Yorkers know the shawarma, they know it exactly," Sam insisted. "There's a lot of shawarma here and downtown. Shawarma is Middle Eastern food, especially Turkish. Syrian, Arabic, Israel, but shawarma is Turkish. It's 80% from beef and 20% from lamb. You can't use too much lamb because it's fatty."
Freddy has a similar formula for his dish, although he also uses chicken as well.
"Mine is beef and lamb, little lamb, more beef," said The King of Shawarma, "The cart in Manhattan I have one chicken and beef and lamb mixed. Shawarma is stuff in a pocket pita like a taco. In Lebanon or Syria or Jordan they do it the other way with a very flat pita. They put everything on top and they wrap it up. We use the thicker pita and then wrap it up. It gets messy, but you use a blend of the spices and put it on a spit, it goes around and around. Whatever gets cooked you shave it off and put it on a pita."
The Arabic word "shawarma" comes from the Turkish word çevirme which literally means "turning," similar to the more familiar Greek term "gyro." As The Byrds used to sing, the meat gets to turn, turn, turn.
Chickpea is a chain with eight locations in New York City that insists on baking all their signature dishes, including chicken shawarma.
"I just saw the trailer, but I had two or three customers walk in that had seen shawarma in 'The Avengers' and wanted to try it," says Sillah of Chickpea's Flatiron district location (688 6th Ave). "They love it. Right now shawarma is one of the chickens we sell here the most."
"It's a slowly roasted chicken with standard spices that the company puts in it," Sillah continued. "It's made in our main store at 14th street and they send it over here."
As for everyone's favorite Avenger, Sam from Shawarma Grill preferred Hulk, while The King of Shawarma (Freddy) and Sillah from Chickpea both dig Iron Man despite his shawarma ignorance. Steve, a manager at The Hummus & Pita Co., said he likes Iron Man the best because he's "a bad dude," but also likes "the one with the big tits." (We assume that's Black Widow.)
"I love Iron Man," said Freddy. "When I came over here I was a kid and my cousin had a collection of comics like there was no tomorrow. Being a big guy too, the iron thing, the big tough king!"
Indeed, it's good to be the king.