A couple of Sundays ago, Thorsten and I were finished hiking the Kloofendal Nature Reserve and looking for a place to eat. We were in Roodepoort — an area neither of us know well, dominated by big shopping centers — and had no idea where to go. Thorsten drove as I aimlessly searched Google Maps for interesting restaurants.
Suddenly, I spotted a sign out of the corner of my eye. “Oh my god!” I nearly shouted. “It’s King Arabic Sandwich!” Thorsten, sensing my hysteria, hung an immediate illegal U-turn.
I’d recently heard a rumor about King Arabic Sandwich, which disappeared several years ago from a tiny shopfront in Mayfair, resurfacing on the West Rand. But I’m not sure I’d believed it. I was afraid to believe it.
Now here King Arabic Sandwich was — on a larger-than-life sign outside the Florida Junction Shopping Centre — trumpeting its reincarnation. “NOW OPEN!” called the sign. Thorsten pulled into the parking lot. It was a West Rand miracle.
The Shawarma King’s Journey From Mayfair to Roodepoort
As far as I know, King Arabic Sandwich is the only Palestinian restaurant in Joburg. It’s run by Mohammed Sultan, a.k.a. the Shawarma King, a chef who fled to South Africa from Palestine as a refugee in 2013.
I first discovered King Arabic Sandwich in 2015, when Mohammed and his wife, Hanan, ran their business in Mayfair. It was a tiny operation and the Sultans were living in the small room behind the restaurant. I was enchanted by the Arabic sandwiches, or fatayer, which are like South Africans pies, but better: delicately spiced meat and vegetable fillings surrounded by soft dough that is somewhere between pastry and pita.
King Arabic Sandwich served shawarmas and falafel back then, too, but I think only on certain days. And to be honest, it never occurred to me to venture beyond the fatayer. I didn’t know what I was missing. It’s scary to think I nearly missed out on those falafels forever.
Fast-forward a couple of years. I got busy, life got in the way, blah blah blah, and I didn’t make it to King Arabic Sandwich for a while. I spotted Mohammed once or twice at food markets, selling his delicious sandwiches to the masses, but eventually I lost track of him.
Mohammed and Hanan had closed the Mayfair shop in 2018 (that space is now a King Arabic Sandwich factory), as I found out later, and King Arabic Sandwich began focusing exclusively on weekend markets and catering. They did well for a while. Then covid hit and King Arabic Sandwich’s business — like so many in South Africa and the world — vaporized in a flash.
But King Arabic Sandwich rose from the ashes. It was back on the market scene as soon as markets returned in mid-2020. And in late 2021, King Arabic Sandwich opened its new shop — with banging new branding — in Roodepoort. This is where Thorsten and I discovered King Arabic on the Sunday before last.
I immediately looked for the fatayer, but it turns out King Arabic Sandwich only sells those on weekdays. So Thorsten and I both ordered falafel wraps. I’m so glad we did because I’m pretty sure this was the best falafel wrap I’ve ever eaten.
I went back to King Arabic Sandwich a few days later to order a takeaway lunch for Thorsten and his staff. I had the lamb and eggplant fatayer (just as good as I remembered) and Thorsten had the chicken shawarma (also delicious). I highly recommend the cold hibiscus tea and homemade baklava, which is to-die-for. (Although the baklava is quite pricey at R100 for four pieces — presumably because it is very labor-intensive to make.)
Eating at King Arabic Sandwich is a delightful experience and totally worth the 25-minute drive from Brixton to Roodepoort. King Arabic Sandwich almost makes me want to pick up and move to Roodepoort. (But I won’t.)
King Arabic Sandwich is open Tuesday to Thursday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Friday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. (closed Monday). The shop closes from 12 to 1 p.m. every Friday for mid-day prayers.