Monday, June 17, 2024

Gardena fave Borjstar Shawarma Shop to open in Downtown—officially marking the Long Beach shawarma wars

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In a world once dominated by Open Sesame as the owner of the shawarma game in Long Beach, things have changed. With the Gardena-based Borjstar Shawarma Shop set to take over the form Utopia space in the East Village Arts District, we have a new influx of Levantine and Mediterranean inspired joints that have hit the scene across the past five years and, in all frankness, altered it in ways that are only for the better.

If Borjstar can keep up—and from its quick, almost cult-like following, it seems it can—Long Beach will be home to one of the most shawarma rich cities in the region.

Before we talk about these so-called shawarma wars, a bit more about Borjstar Shawarma Shop

So Borjstar Shawarma Shop is kinda Gardena-based but actually more Hague (as in the Netherlands)-based: Owner and Syrian native Abu Jemil has previously owned two shawarma-focused shops in the Hague before taking the full dive into the American restaurant industry by opening Borjstar in September of last year. Across the roughly half-year span, he has not only built up a loyal legion of patrons but wants to take over the former Utopia space in the East Village Arts District in Downtown.

It comes as good news for two reasons: After announcing their closure in September of 2023, Utopia was already in discussions to become the Royal Indian Curry House—something that sparked much excitement given it was from the original and now former owners of Natraj in Belmont Shore. Since that plan as fell through, it is spirit-lifting to see another brand come in swiftly to replace an empty storefront in a neighborhood that has been largely viewed through unkind eyes through and post-pandemic.

Secondly, Borjstar’s shawarma is a beautiful take on Syrian shawarma, where the heft of cardamom and coriander are layered across spit-stacked slices of chicken and beef. (And no, it is not gyro—an eye-squinting, eyebrow-raising version of shawarma that the Greeks are remiss to acknowledge they outright stole from the Arab world in a brilliant PR-centric rebranding for their own cultural benefit.)

Because of this adherence to tradition across the Middle East—including its subtleties, like Borjstar Shawarma Shop happily allowing you to add fries, a tradition that stems out of Lebanon—it has garnered a peppy patronage that happily sells the joint’s virtues as a premiere shawarma place.

The shawarma scene in Long Beach doesn’t remotely begin with Borjstar Shawarma Shop…

Now, let’s not dilute the purely-good-sportmanship of calling an all-out culinary competition a war by saying that there is room for all. Of course there is room for all: Like the desire to have a taco truck on every corner, there is no shortage of shawarma that would dampen our scene—save for the ones who perform mediocrely.

And luckily, Long Beach has long had some pretty solid shawarma, which could be largely attributed to an influx of Lebanese immigrants opening restaurants in the late 1990s and early 2000s in Long Beach.

Like that of Open Sesame in 1999 and Gypsy in 2003. And while it can certainly be argued that George Mitri brought Levantine food to Long Beach when he opened Sahara in 1976 (followed by Baba Ghanouj in Bixby Knolls, which shuttered right before the pandemic in 2020), it is for certain that Open Sesame and Gypsy introduced Long Beach to shawarma proper.

And this led to what we can call a shawarma renaissance: From Taboon and Panin Kabob Grill to Ali Baba and The Green Olive, various takes on the Levantine staple have reach good heights—though maybe not at the height of, say, Something Syrian or Mama’s Shawarma at our big sister’s place to the north.

Well, that is until Ammatolí.

…and that very same shawarma scene is heightened if not now dominated by the presence of Ammatolí

While there are a handful of naysayers when it comes to Ammatolí in Downtown Long Beach—that comes with the territory when you are climbing the Los Angeles Times’s Best 101 Restaurants list each year while also becoming one of the first Long Beach restaurants to score a semifinalist recognition from James Beard—Chef Dima Habibeh’s Levantine restaurant is, in the words of Los Angeles Times food critic Bill Addison, the par example of “consummate classical Levantine cooking in Southern California.”

And while we all delight in her masterful takes on mansaf and makloubeh, it was her humble shawarma that put her on the initial food map: Takes on beef shawarma—so wildly and expertly layered with spices that even those in the Fifth Circle of Amman, Dima’s home city, would nod in their heads in approval upon tasting—and chicken shawarma—wrapped in khubz and layered with pickles and toum—and chicken shawarma gave her the love she continues to receive.

Her house pickles and airy toum for the chicken. Her creamy’n’dreamy tarator for the beef. Her unabashed-but-expert slathering of spices across slices of meat on a spit. For those that have Dima’s shawarma first, they are surely likely to be disappointed wherever they have it next. In the words of my grandma trying it for the first time, “I wish I had the vocabulary to describe the flavors I am experiencing.”

And while certainly more casual—Borjstar Shawarma Shop is a space that aims for the fast casual versus Ammatolí’s growing identity as a formal sit-down-with-a-reservation place, echoing the famed shawarma shops of the Europe Jemil became accustomed to—what is for certain is that Long Beach has happily become a haven for decent, some good, and some great shawarma. And it is likely Borjstar Shawarma Shop falls into that last category or, in the least, fingers crossed.

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Borjstar Shawarma Shop is set to open at 445 E. 1st St.

Brian Addison
Brian Addison
Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 25 nominations and three additional wins. In 2019, he was awarded the Food/Culture Critic of the Year across any platform at the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I am a Mediterranean food snob. My favorite by far is D’Vine at Stearns and Bellflower. I started with Open Sesame over 20 years ago and loved it. Until about 10 years ago, the food quality went down and the prices went up. We found an excellent place in Cerritos called Mezza, but they are gone now. Been on the search for good Mediterranean food ever since. Tried all of the places you mention above except Borjstar (which I’m excited about), until I found little D’Vine right in my neighborhood. The Baba Ganoush (my fave) is the best I’ve ever had. And they aren’t afraid to make their garlic sauce, VERY garlicky!

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