Waiting for Shwarma
If you want to receive more hate stares per second than a Wal-Mart executive at an L.A. Conservancy meeting, you might try ordering the last bit of shwarma at Arax Falafel on a Saturday afternoon, having the final shreds of extremely well-done meat cut off the revolving spit just for you, tossed onto a combination platter, so you can tuck it into pita and moisten it with a little tahini sauce as half of Little Armenia looks over ?your shoulder.
Arax, which has been feeding the neighborhood for almost 25 years, is not a large place, just three tomato-red Formica booths and an ATM machine, the owner’s TV set tuned to the Colts game, and a line of takeout customers stretching out the door. The woman at the register nods toward you half a dozen times as she explains where the last of the shwarma has gone (or at least you assume that’s what she is saying — “shwarma” is the only word of her rapid-fire Armenian that you can understand). The smell rises from your oval of Styrofoam in the kind of tantalizing tendrils you’ve seen in Bugs Bunny cartoons, and there is nowhere, nowhere to hide as the grumpy faces turn your way.
There are chicken kebabs at Arax, and shish kebabs, and oozing, garlic-laden sandwiches stuffed with the Armenian sausage called soujok. The hummus and tabbouleh are rather fine. Arax’s specialty, of course, is the falafel, which is with good reason considered the best in Hollywood — falafel that is crisped in the cleanest frying oil this side of an Osaka tempura bar. The impossibly crunchy flying-saucer capsules of fried chickpeas are garnished with juicy tomatoes and caulked into rolls of pita bread with thick lashings of pungent tahini. The scarlet turnip pickles that come with the falafel are the best I have ever tasted, and you can buy them by the jar. The lule kebab may be a tad under-seasoned, but how can you argue with ground meat on a stick?
Even as you start to nibble guiltily on your own shwarma, the owner of the place is fitting a new cone of shwarma onto a huge rotisserie, two feet of glistening, pink shavings pressed under slabs of white fat that will melt down into and nourish the spice-saturated flesh — crisp, dripping, lovely shwarma that is so far from the pressed-gristle shwarma served at your local kebab hut that it is practically another dish. This is shwarma of integrity, shwarma that tastes of beast. But real shwarma takes time to cook, and not everybody is willing to wait.
“Fifteen minutes? Twenty minutes? You are killing me,” moaned a husky man in a velour jacket. “I will go back to my car now and die.”
He went back to his car, a Buick parked next to my truck, and listened to the last minutes of the game. When I glanced in on my way out, there was no sign of a body, and I am sure the ambulance had not yet arrived. Shwarma-deprivation syndrome is a terrible thing, but perhaps not what the medical journals are making it out to be.
What may not be obvious, even to the shwarma fan, is that the real specialty of Falafel Arax may be the tongue sandwich: thick slices of stewed lamb’s tongue stuffed into a length of French bread and grilled crisp in a battered metal sandwich press, the kind that you find in every Cuban sandwich shop in Miami. The outer crust bakes to an appealing crispness, the flavor of the tongue concentrates to a mellow but powerful lambiness only slightly inflected by the Armenian spices, and the inside of the roll all but melts away — the first couple of times I tried the sandwich, I suspected the presence of a delicate, lemony sauce, which turned out to be the bread absorbing the seasonings, dissolving, and enveloping the sandwich like mayonnaise. Hot tongue sandwiches may not be your thing, but they should be. And if not, there’s always — well, almost always — the shwarma.
Arax Falafel, 5101 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd., (323) 663-9687. Open Mon.–Sat. 10 a.m.–8 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.–6 p.m. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. Cash only. (ATM on premises.) Lunch for two, food only, $9–$16. Falafel plate, shwarma, tongue sandwich.
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