Fusion has become a dirty word in the food world. High-end chefs line up on the field of battle, ready to trade words over whether fusion is the driver of innovation and cross-cultural exchange or a craven attempt by white Americans to profit off the cuisines of immigrants.
But there’s more than one kind of fusion food. Far away from the fine-dining temples where foodies debate cultural appropriation, small, family-run restaurants are inventing new dishes for the only reason that matters: They taste good.
I don’t know what I expected from my first Tex-Mex shawarma wrap. The sandwich, an invention of fast-casual Shawarma Press in Las Colinas, takes chicken shawarma and mixes it with grilled onions, bell peppers, melting shredded cheese and a “Tex-Mex sauce.” At about a foot in length, it’s a steal for $6.49.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a steal if it tasted weird. So I ordered the Tex-Mex shawarma on my first visit with some fear. What had the gods of fusion food unleashed?
It’s terrific. The wrapping — which resembles a burrito-sized tortilla, crisp like it’s been gently fried — is sinfully good, and the sandwich filling has gentle spice. The seasoning on the chicken comes through, and the sauce, which tastes a lot like chipotle mayo, doesn’t try to overdo things. Adding salsas or hot peppers might have been a bridge too far; the creaminess of the dressing helps it substitute for tahini sauce. I’d eat it again.
The next time out, I ordered a chicken shawarma wrap dressed in Indian garb ($6.49). This one strips down the veggies to basics — tomato and onion — and adds a curry sauce with sneaky spice. The flatbread around it resembles a dark, crisp roti.
Only it’s not roti. And the Tex-Mex wrap doesn’t use a tortilla. Sawsan Abublan, who owns the restaurant with her husband, explains that the magic ingredient is, in fact, a type of bread from Jordan, the country where they were born. It’s called shrack (or, sometimes, shrak) and it’s made fresh in house. Shrack is rolled out or tossed pizza-style to extraordinary thinness, then baked. Despite its dimensions, it is strong enough to contain every sandwich filling Shawarma Press serves, except falafel, which is served in a traditional pita.
The Tex-Mex and tandoori wraps were invented in response to the neighborhood’s demographics, but for Abublan and her husband, the concept behind Shawarma Press came from a more personal wish.
“The shawarma sandwich is a sandwich that we crave every year when we travel overseas to visit our family in Jordan,” Abublan says. “This was something we thought was missing from the market. You can find a lot of open buffet or cafeteria-style Mediterranean food, but not necessarily a sandwich place.”
The result of their vision is a restaurant where everything is made from scratch in house. That includes the falafel, which arrives so hot that steam trails rise from its crisp, dark exterior (appetizer portion of five, $4). I took a moment to let the steam flutter away, dunked the falafel in tahini sauce and enjoyed the textural contrast between its outside crunch and crumbly, moist interior.
Also made fresh: a series of small appetizer pastries and pies based on Jordanian recipes, like the triangular spinach turnover called fatayer ($2). The miniature pies with toppings such as zaatar seasoning mix and cheese tend to be well-flavored if a little doughy ($2).
Shawarma Press does much better at dessert. A square of pistachio baklava costs $2.49, but it’s made fresh daily, baked to perfection and filled with a generous helping of pistachios, and it's just the right level of sweet. Abublan says that because the pastry is sold so fresh, there is no need to preserve it by weighing it down with cloying honey or syrup.
The most impressive feat of in-house preparation is the shawarma meat. The beef and chicken for shawarma are typically sliced thinly and then loaded onto a vertical rotisserie spit in a massive stack of meat. As the spit turns, a thin layer is shaved off each time a customer orders. This technique, invented in Turkey in the 1800s, led to Middle Eastern shawarma, Greek gyros and, via Lebanese immigrants, the Mexican trompo.
Almost every gyro joint in Dallas shares a dirty little secret, though. Most places don’t marinate, cut and stack their own meats. It’s a laborious process, almost insanely impractical. Badly balanced meat towers can topple. Aside from dedicated taco joints like Trompo, almost every local restaurant using the technique orders preshaped, frozen cones of meat from distributors.
With the same hesitation that preceded my first bite of Tex-Mex shawarma, I asked Abublan where she gets her meat. She confirmed that Shawarma Press makes its shawarma in house every day.
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“We buy the chicken and the beef from a farm, and we slice the meat at the restaurant,” she says. “We marinate them for a day or two in a special marinade, and then each day we stack them. There is a very special way of doing that and making sure it’s all balanced.
“We do everything ourselves. We did not want to compromise. Not that they do, honestly,” she clarifies, not wanting to bad-mouth restaurants that take the understandable shortcut. “Our idea was to do it the authentic way to fill that niche. I’m not trying to make anybody look bad. What I’m trying to do is to make it the authentic way.”
The results tell in the beef shawarma sandwich ($6.49). It’s a great wrap, the shrack pressed firmly into place, containing a bounty of tender beef, a flow of creamy tahini sauce, grilled onions, black pepper and parsley. The wrap could not be simpler. But the perfectionism that lies behind its making helps Shawarma Press stand out in a crowded market.
Shawarma Press, 411 E. Royal Lane, Suite 110, Irving. 972-830-9305, shawarma.press. Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.