As many of you already know, I’ve been on a mission to discover Joburg’s best shawarmas. This turned out to be a bigger challenge than I initially anticipated.
First, I like to do my “best of” posts in groups of five. But there are a lot more than five great shawarma restaurants in Joburg. I thought I knew more or less where to go, but once I started researching I found Joburg’s shawarma culture extends more widely than I realized.
Second, about halfway through this challenge I realized I didn’t actually know what a shawarma — or schwarma, as many South Africans spell it — even is. I had always thought of shawarmas as sandwiches made with pita bread and stuffed with various fillings, toppings, and sauces. But that’s not technically what a shawarma is at all (or at least it’s not only that).
The word “shawarma” refers to roasted meat — chicken, beef, or lamb — marinated and stacked into a cone shape on a turning spit.
Shawarma meat can be stuffed into a pita, rolled into a laffa (thin bread folded into a wrap), or served without any bread at all — it’s all shawarma, regardless of the format. I discovered during this project that the laffa wrap is my favorite shawarma format.
Falafel wrapped in laffa or pita bread is not shawarma, because it’s not meat. But in my experience, every great shawarma restaurant also has great falafel. So if you’re a vegetarian you will not have a problem at any of these places.
Third, shawarmas are insanely filling but it’s very hard not to eat the whole thing. So we couldn’t visit more than restaurant per week without making ourselves sick.
After many weeks, my research is now complete. Here are my five favorites, with the caveat that there are many more great Joburg shawarma places not on this list.
1) The Schwarma Co. in Norwood
The Schwarma Co. is the most famous Joburg shawarma restaurant, located in a two-story building on a prominent corner of Norwood’s Grant Avenue.
Schwarma Co. was founded by a pair of Arab-Israeli brothers, Wafi and Marwan, who have lived in Joburg for decades. Their restaurant is usually packed, especially on Sundays.
I like the atmosphere at Schwarma Co. — it’s lively and there’s always good people-watching. I also love checking out all the colorful jars of pickled veggies and other interesting Middle Eastern food products that line the front wall.
Schwarma Co.’s shawarmas are flawless, with perfectly seasoned meat and fresh, well-presented toppings.
You can’t go wrong with the Schwarma Co. — a solid choice every time. (Be warned: You may have to wait for a table during Sunday lunch.)
2) Syrian Rose in Fordsburg
I blogged about Syrian Rose a few months ago, so please refer to that post for a full review.
I also love Syrian Rose for its atmosphere. Like Schwarma Co., it sits on a prominent corner and the restaurant is completely open during nice weather. It’s also one of two restaurants on this list in which the laffas are made in full view of the customers, which really adds to the ambiance.
The first few times I went to Syrian Rose I had the grilled chicken meal. Then I discovered the falafel wrap. Finally I tried the beef shawarma platter and then the chicken shawarma wrap. All of it is delicious and exceedingly well priced.
Syrian Rose is at 208 Albertina Sisulu Rd., Fordsburg.
3) Chanah’s Shawarma Bar in Fairmount
Chanah’s Shawarma Bar is definitely the most obscure place I’ve included here. It’s a tiny shopfront in a small, unobtrusive shopping center in Fairmount, near Glenhazel.
Chanah’s is also the most intriguing restaurant on this list, because: 1) The owner, Chanah, is a woman, which seems to be unusual for shawarma restaurants; 2) Chanah is both Ghanaian and Jewish; and 3) Chanah always manages to politely evade my attempts to learn her life story, which I have no doubt is fascinating. I do know she used to live in Israel and that is where she learned to make shawarma.
Chanah’s doesn’t have a ton of atmosphere but I like the quirkiness of the place. I also love Chanah’s fried onions. The pitas and laffas are huge and tasty.
For those who keep kosher, Chanah’s is the place to go — note that it’s closed on Friday nights and Saturdays. (I think all the other restaurants on the list are halal.) Chanah serves a couple of West African dishes but I haven’t tried those yet.
Chanah’s Shawarma Bar is at 10 Bradfield Drive, Fairmount Extension 2.
4) Yalla! in Morningside
Several readers recommended Yalla to me when I asked for shawarma recommendations. I’m glad they did, as I had never heard of it before I started this series. Yalla has two locations, one in Fairland and one in Morningside — Thorsten and I ate at the Morningside location. Yalla’s owners are originally from Syria.
Several aspects of Yalla really stand out to me: the cheerful branding; the super friendly staff; and the “chilli chicken” shawarma, which I haven’t seen anywhere else — the meat is marinated in chilli sauce and the laffa is spread with a special chilli mayo.
Yalla’s locations are at the Fairland Walk Shopping Centre in Fairland and the Morning View Shopping Centre in Morningside.
5) King Arabic Sandwich in Roodepoort
I blogged about King Arabic Sandwich very recently so I’ll keep this writeup short. I’ve saved King Arabic for last because Thorsten and I both agree: Although we love all five of these restaurants and I don’t want to rank them in a specific order, King Arabic Sandwich is our overall favorite.
I don’t know exactly what Chef Muhammed, who is originally from Palestine, does to his shawarmas and falafels — maybe it’s the way he marinates the meat or gently presses the falafel down onto the laffa, just so. But King Arabic’s food is awe-inspiring. I love the atmosphere in the small shop and the music they play. King Arabic Sandwich is pure fun.
I have now said everything I can possibly say about shawarmas in Joburg. I look forward to your comments: Who do you think I’ve missed? Yalla habibi!