543 Fourth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
Baktiar has surely found the sweet spot. This is where folks wandering down Fourth start running out of steam. They can’t see anything ahead except the bricky Horton Grand Hotel. They hesitate and, most of them, turn around. And then a few come in here, because, well, it’s food, and — Gaslamp miracle! — it’s cheap.
That’s what happened to me, anyway, this Thursday evening. I’m starting to get used to all this Middle Eastern food popping up around town. I mean, yeah, we invaded the Middle East with tanks, but the Middle East has invaded us right back with grub. And baby, we’re willing to be occupied. The shawarmas (or from Turkey, the doner kebab), the Middle East’s equivalent of the Greek gyro, and baklavas are taking us by dessert storm — heh-heh — just about everywhere. They lure us with those sabroso rotating vertical stacks of layered, spiced meat roasting in front of racks of flames. The glistening fat dripping off is enough to slap your saliva glands awake and march your feet in off the street to face the man behind the counter.
Or, in this case, the woman. Avan. Her name means “Ocean.” She stands below a wickedly smiling sultan in a turban and the sign Sultan Shawarma. Two kids, a girl and a boy, play around her. Huh. So this is a family affair. It’s quite a narrow little place, with a nice patio on the street and a bunch of red tables inside, and cream-and-red walls with large paintings of Mediterranean towns overlooking blue waters. Artificial flowers, like geraniums and ferns, sit around in baskets. A flattened copper Aladdin’s lamp hangs on one wall. It’s all very new and clean.
So — this is five minutes ago — I’m staring up at the menu board. Hmm. You basically have a choice of combos or plates or sandwiches. There are five plates, beef shawarma, chicken shawarma, beef kebab, ground beef kebab, and shish tawk (chicken). These all cost $8.95 and come with hummus, rice, salad, and pita bread. Then there’s a shawarma combo, of beef and chicken, for $10.95, and a “three of a kind” combo — beef kebab, kefta (ground beef), and tawk, for $13.95.
Me, I look to the sandwiches, pretty much all $6.49. And exactly the same choices, but without the sides. Plus, they’ve added a cheesesteak sandwich with grilled onions and mushrooms ($6.49), which kinda steps out of the Middle Eastern thing. They have a chicken salad ($6.95) and vegetarian dishes, including baba ghanouj (a dip made from eggplant — $4.95) and hummus ($5.95); or a “Mediterranean Veggie Plate” ($9.95) with stuffed grape leaves, falafel, hummus, baba ghanouj, and pita.
I pick a chicken shawarma sandwich just because the slabs on the three-foot-high tower of chicken look so golden and delicious. Then I see you can get a side of hummus or baba ghanouj for $1.95. Hmm. Plus 50 cents for pita bread. So, okay, I order the hummus.
Avan calls out, “Chicken shawarma. Sandwich!”
Guy she’s calling to is Baktiar (“Happiness”), her husband and the owner here. He brings out a sword with a bunch of chicken chunks stabbed onto it and sets it hissing on the grill.
Then I’m outside on the patio on Fourth. The frontage is olive green with big varnished planks, black iron railings. In the fading light, a coronet of dripping lights switches on. Avan brings out a beautiful little plate of hummus with pita, plus a glass of water. The hummus has a black olive in the middle of a puddle of golden olive oil, with parsley for the green effect. Little extra I love is the stick of red pickled turnip that comes with it. Can’t beat that garbanzo and lemon taste. Then Baktiar brings the shawarma. Must say, one bite and this spiced chicken thing truly works great. Can taste…sesame? Maybe has tahini paste in? Hummus? Both? Whatever, those golden chunks of chicken taste rich and moist. They’re surrounded by onion, pickle, lettuce, tomato. It’s so juicy I hardly need the water to slosh it down.
Baktiar comes and sits with two dudes eating chicken and beef shawarmas out here, Christian and José. He knows these guys. His little boy Rewan (“Guide”) wants to come out too. He must be all of seven, eight max. “No no, Rewan,” Baktiar says. “This is man talk.” “I’m a man, aren’t I?” says Rewan. His dad relents, and the boy sits down, looking really proud. It turns out Baktiar is Kurdish, from northern Iraq. The people Saddam gassed. He escaped to Turkey and Greece, and finally San Diego. “I ended up driving a cab here, at the airport,” he says. “Then when 9/11 happened, flying tanked. Taxi business tanked.” So Baktiar decided to take a job as translator with U.S. forces in Iraq. “That’s what financed this restaurant,” he says. “Three tours in Iraq. Three years. It was worth it. This is what I’ve always wanted, a little place of my own.”
Wow. While we’ve been talking, Rewan has wandered out onto the sidewalk. But his dad’s not worried. “He’s in love with Monique,” he says. “He just stands and looks at her.” And, yes, Rewan’s leaning against a lamppost, staring at the hostess outside the café next door, Café Sevilla. Monique. She smiles at him. Rewan breaks into a grin and runs back inside.
Think I may head inside too, for Kurdish baklava ($1.50). Can’t resist. Guess I’m just another victim of Operation Dessert Storm.
The Place: Sultan Shawarma, 543 Fourth Avenue, downtown 619-231-1824
Type of Food: Mediterranean
Prices: beef shawarma, chicken shawarma, beef kebab, ground beef kebab, skewered chicken, as sandwich, $6.49 each; as plate (with hummus, rice, salad, pita bread), $8.95; shawarma combos, of beef and chicken, $10.95; “three of a kind” combo — beef kebab, ground beef, chicken, $13.95; cheesesteak sandwich with grilled onions and mushrooms, $6.49; Mediterranean veggie plate (with stuffed grape leaves, falafel and hummus, baba ghanouj, pita), $9.95
Hours: 11:00 a.m.–midnight, Sunday–Wednesday; till 3:00 a.m., Thursday–Saturday
Buses: all downtown
Nearest Bus Stop: Fourth and Broadway