There are many places for good falafel around metro Phoenix, and even more places for merely passable falafel. Falafel, that crunchy, deep-fried stalwart meze dish of the Middle Eastern table, is one of those foods — like pizza, or maybe a gooey cheeseburger — where even middling efforts usually produce something good enough to satisfy your cravings for fatty, flavor-laden food.
But when you bite into the falafel at Shawarma King — an order here yields something like six craggy, crispy golden-brown balls — you come to realize that, until now, you’ve mostly consumed the efforts of falafel dilettantes. The Shawarma King rendition of falafel is exceptional, and a sort of marvel of contradictions: densely built, yet light enough to snack on by the handful. It’s crunchy on the outside, with a surprisingly springy, spongey interior. It's rich with rich with the flavors of ground, spiced garbanzo, yet also suffused with the fresh, bracing flavors of pureed herbs. When you order the falafel appetizer plate at Shawarma King, it’s accompanied by a garlicky tahini sauce and a small bowl filled with slices of beet-red house-pickled turnips, homemade pickles, and sweet-spicy yellow peppers, all of which will brighten up your falafel with nice flashes of acidity and spice. But this particular falafel is so good, it can easily stand on its own.
If you amble up to the counter to compliment Fadi Bajbouj, Shawarma King’s owner and head chef, on the quality of his falafel, he will more than likely flash you a smile and point to the plastic container which holds his homemade spice mix. He will probably tell you that nearly everything on the menu, including the falafel, is made from scratch, most of the recipes repurposed from old family recipes and previous menus. Before opening Shawarma King in Glendale almost four years ago, Bajbouj owned and operated two restaurants in his native country of Syria.
Sometime during your visit, you will probably also note that Shawarma King is clearly a one-man operation. On any given day, you’ll observe Bajbouj running the cashier, taking phone orders, and throwing together a falafel plate in a flash, usually without missing a beat, and with no extra pair of hands in sight. But this means that even the slightest snarl, like more than a couple of diners trickling in at a time, can dramatically slow down the pace of service. In other words, pack your patience when you pay a visit to the Shawarma King.
Still, the risk of slow service hasn’t yet stopped the steady stream of neighborhood folk, who seem to make a pit stop at the sleepy Cactus Village Shopping Plaza, located near 43rd Avenue and Cactus Road in Glendale, expressly for a taste of Bajbouj’s cooking. Nobody really comes for the ambiance. The Shawarma King dining room is as neat and generic as any small, modern strip-mall restaurant in the Valley, right down to the square-shaped Formica tables and the self-serve beverage fountain in the corner, which is stocked with iced tea and soda. The only real trace of color and life are the framed prints of falafel and hummus on the wall, and the faint scent of clean oil and Baharat spices in the air. Sometimes, when it slows down enough, Bajbouj will flip a switch somewhere behind the counter and the slow, pleasing lilt of Syrian music will drift into the dining room.
It should go without saying that you will probably want to start with an order of the falafel, although the hummus should not go overlooked. The hummus here is as fresh and creamy as any you’ll find around town, glistening with fresh olive oil and served with triangles of lightly grilled flatbread.
There is also a selection of very good salads, including the Arabic salad, a finely chopped medley of very fresh cucumber, lemon, parsley, tomato, and jalapeño, all of it doused in a fair amount of olive oil. There is the classic Greek salad, with oversize leaves of Romaine punctuated with feta cheese and olives, and also a purple cabbage salad, which comes dressed in a wonderful, slightly sweet vinaigrette.
If you come for lunch, your main option will be what the menu describes as a sandwich, but which you are more likely to think of as a wrap. The wraps are enormous, torpedo-shaped meals, which come stuffed with your choice of slow-cooked meat, or perhaps falafel, encased in a sturdy, somewhat stiff flatbread. The specialty here, of course — as illustrated by the name of the restaurant, and the smiling, crown-donning cartoon meat mascot emblazoned on the restaurant’s signage — is shawarma, the traditional Levantine-style meat whose irresistibly tender texture is achieved by having the meat rotate on a spit for hours. There are only two shawarma options — beef or chicken — and both are excellent, although the chicken shawarma wins by a hair. The thin, extremely tender shavings of meat are subtly flavored with cloves and cinnamon and shaved off the rotating spit moments before they land inside your wrap.
Dinner is available after 3 p.m., with most plates offering a basically expanded version of what you’ll find on the lunch menu. There’s the Arabic shawarma plate, an extra-large serving of the succulent, beautifully seasoned spitfire chicken, bundled inside a wrap and served with a side of crispy French fries. Even better is the slightly more traditional chicken shawarma plate, which replaces the French fries with a fragrant heap of yellow basmati rice and a small romaine salad.
The chicken kabob plate, meanwhile, is further proof that Bajbouj has a special knack for working with poultry. The chicken isn’t served on a wooden skewer, but rather in a neat, sweaty pile of succulent, juicy hunks – lightly marinated in a citrusy glaze – and served slightly charred and still smoky from the grill.
Then there’s the Vegetarian Feast plate, a sort of composite of everything on the menu made without animal protein. The vegetarian plate is maybe the loveliest-looking dish on the menu, a mosaic of bright purple cabbage, slices of fuchsia-colored turnips, Arabic salad, and a fresh, tawny muddle of hummus. It comes with a small pyramid of craggy, crunchy balls of falafel, which is the element of the dish even non-vegetarians can dream about.
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For dessert, there is but one option: baklava, the rich, filo dough pastry held together by lavish amounts of syrup. The version at Shawarma King is fine, but a little overly sweet and dull. Even with a cloyingly sweet finish, on a recent visit, all that syrupy sugar couldn’t quite keep a wedge of the baklava cemented together properly. So, come for the restaurant’s excellent namesake shawarma, or else the juicy, smoke-tinged chicken kabob. But whatever you do, don’t forget to try the falafel.
4312 W. Cactus Road, Glendale
Hours: Tuesday to Friday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays 12 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Chicken shawarma plate $12.99
Vegetarian Feast $10.99