Say it with me: Glory to the SHAWARMA! Burger joints may have taken the Riyadh food scene by storm (and now we’re flooded with them), but Shawarmas will always be THE cultural icon of this town. This wonderful wrap made of khubus (Arabic flatbread), garlic sauce, french fries, pickles and grilled chicken can send palpitations to the young and old, rich or poor. It is one of the food items that newcomers in Riyadh are “required” to eat upon stepping into the sands of Saudi Arabia (apart from the Kabsah). Other countries have tried to replicate it, but there’s nothing like a Saudi shawarma.
Thus, I have taken it upon myself (with a little help from my buddies) to gather round some of the reputable shawarmas of Riyadh and do a “Shawarma Showdown” for you to get a glimpse of how these shawarmas fare in terms of taste, quality and presentation. (I have been watching too much Chopped! LOL). What to expect? Loads of shawarma pictures of course! For the first installment of the Shawarma Showdown, I selected the fairly popular shawarma shops in town.
Are you ready? Here we go!
Al Karwan is a local eatery that I frequented when I used to live in the Umal Hammam neighborhood. It’s not anything fancy and it’s the closest thing to a street food joint as far as I know. It wasn’t until I moved to a new place somewhere in Takhassusi that I learned of another branch, where they are also known to do home deliveries of their baked breads, felafels, broasted chicken and of course, their shawarmas to the nearby residential area.
The flavor of the garlic sauce was good but it wasn’t enough for the entire shawarma, which ended up being too dry for our liking. The bread was also a little tough and the serving amount was just okay. Presentation was ordinary and it was what I would expect from a local eatery. The french fries and chicken was nothing to rave about really. One small shawarma goes for 4SR. Overall rating: 2.5 out of 5.
Mama Noura is one of the most famous (if not THE most famous) local shawarma joints in the city but quite frankly, I’m not a huge fan of their shawarmas based on my past experiences. Maybe because their servings are not as hearty as I’d expect from a popular brand plus the waiting time I’ve wasted on their Dhabab branch has always been grueling so I tend to take my 4SR somewhere else.
In fairness to all the hype behind Mama Noura, their notoriety relies on the flavor of their chicken. Its seasoning and marinade may have magic powers because it is the star center of the taste and its surely what you will remember. But like I said, serving size could improve because I know lesser known shawarma places that serves up a heartier wrap than they do and still win on taste. Also, there was hardly any garlic sauce on our orders and for us, the garlic sauce is what elevates a regular shawarma from the rest. Overall rating: 3 out 5.
I only heard about Golden Saj while researching on Foursquare’s tips on where to look for shawarmas and it turns out that they also have a branch near where I live! How absurd is that? It had good reviews on the app but we wanted to get our own take on it.
Now look at that! That’s one hearty, jam-packed shawarma. It had a lot of meat, a lot of garlic sauce and almost quite to a fault…had a lot of pickle sauce. While serving portion was really worth your buck, we’d have to regretfully inform you that despite the burly appearance, their shawarma was a tad bit-bordering-on bland. It could have done better if their chicken had the same marinade/seasoning of Mama Noura. Alas, nothing is perfect in this universe! Overall rating: 3.2 out of 5.
Ya Mal Asham
Before Olaya became a site for industrial revolution (Isn’t all of Riyadh?) and before H&M and American Eagle stood beside Jarir Bookstore, there stood Ya Mal Asham. They later relocated across the street a couple of meters farther down the road. My friend Z went there to get us our goodies and include it in the Shawarma Showdown.
Presentation-wise, they surely get brownie points for design and packaging. However, if Golden Saj was bordering on totally bland, Ya Mal Asham was bordering beyond our sodium levels! Ang alat! Yes, it was hearty in serving portions but taste-wise, oh no no no no…I could not take more than two bites. For some reason, the chicken was extremely salty and the pickles inside it did not taste fresh at all. Perhaps the only edible thing I could muster was the bread. Overall rating: 2 out of 5.
Rated on Foursquare as one of the top places to get Shawarma in Riyadh, I feel ashamed that I have never tried this place before. One of my other friends, G, lives close to the famous Shawarma House and argued that I get a shawarma plate, which is their best seller. However, seeing that it would be unfair to the other shawarmas, I told him to just get a sharouk (a large shawarma) instead.
The bread for a sharouk is different from that of a small shawarma and they tend to be softer than a khubus, which is what we tasted/felt with the shawarma from Shawarma House. The marinade flavor for the chicken was leaning towards the (tolerable) sour side making it tasty and different from the rest. However, the taste of the charcoal from the grill appeared to be a bit strong and some bits went into a few of our bites. There was also little sauce to go around with for such a huge shawarma (More dollops of garlic sauce please!). Although my buddies strongly defended the brand by saying that their shawarma plate is actually generous with garlic sauce. I’d have to take their word on that. Overall rating: 3.4 out of 5.
I’d say Shawarmer is the most popular commercial brand in the city. They’re more of the modern adaptation of what street/local shawarmers could be should they ever consider becoming hip and trendy (just look at their inventive logo). Shawarmer has over 20 branches all over KSA and one of their advantages is that they are one of the few places you can catch a shawarma before 5PM (most street shawarmas only start selling shawarma after 5PM as per tradition). Thus, if you get a shawarma itch at around noon time, just wait til prayer time is over at 12 and call on them to order (they deliver too!).
They have two kinds of bread available: the regular khubus or the Saji (white bread), which is what we opted for. The softness of the Saji bread posted a stark difference to our biting and munching process. It was definitely not your average shawarma bread. There were hints of lettuce here and there, which isn’t originally a shawarma staple but it does help make it feel ‘healthier’. Haha! The chicken was well-seasoned but we felt that it was their sauce recipe that really balanced everything together. Serving portion counts as reasonable. The possible downside? This is definitely a pricier choice at 7SR a piece. Overall rating: 3.8 out of 5.
Assaraya Turkish Restaurant
We saved the best for last (in our humble opinion). While Assaraya is not a Shawarma-exclusive brand to begin with, their shawarmas are certainly worth our money and memory. Personally, I’ve been going there since I was a kid and its shawarmas (and shawarma plates) are any Saudi kids’ idea of…wait for it…legendary!
Considering that the shawarma itself has Turkish roots, we give credit to the chefs of Assaraya for delivering the classic, authentic taste of what shawarma really is and how it should be. Their seasoning of the chicken wasn’t too strong nor was it too weak…it was just right. However, since my friend G took it upon himself to order the super huge sharouk (it was as long as my arm, I swear, we measured it), it seems that some of the garlic sauce got soaked up by the bread. However, in my experience of their shawarma plates and regular sized shawarmas, I’ve known them to be quite generous when it comes to garlic sauce. So feel free to ask for extra. On the downside, they don’t deliver at all. No matter how many times I’ve begged them to through all the years. Price has also increased but long time fans haven’t been deterred. 12SR for a sharouk and 6SR for a regular. Overall rating: 4 out 5.
Can I just end this feature with one, huge, shawarma-smelling BURP?! We definitely got some meat-sweats after that feast! Woooot.
Anyway before I forget, recognitions are in order for my dude friends with cars who went on a mission to round up these shawarmas for me and help gather the material needed for this write-up. Thank you G, Z and E for a fantastic food trip all in the name of the shawarma! I am sure the people of Riyadh will also thank you all for your help.
While I’m sure there are still many shawarma joints out there, by all means, feel free to comment on which brand or restaurant should we include on our next Shawarma Showdown! Until then!