The way most Middle Eastern restaurants appear in North America, one may be forgiven for thinking that people throughout the region just eat shawarma, falafel, and hummus, then go back to having hummus, falafel, and shawarma, and onwards without end. Yet, here is an unsurprising, yet often unrecognized fact: they don't; there is much more.

Finding koshary or sabich or ful or hawawshi — dishes perhaps more popular than much of the gold standards in some parts of the Middle East — is often akin to searching for a Sasquatch while blindfolded. While Shawarma Joint rarely steps away from the well-established canon of the Middle Eastern restaurants of North America, it presents the usuals admirably.


Photo by Gina Hanna.

On a Saturday evening, we went to Shawarma Joint's recently opened second branch on University and Vine in Urbana. Certainly less cramped than the campus location but seemingly equally popular, the Joint’s décor remains colorful, if somewhat generic, with photos from the Middle East and an Arabic pop music background. Thankfully, unlike the original Shawarma Joint where there are two TVs playing different songs in parallel, here there was only one copy of Wael Kfoury accompanying the meal.

Shawarma Joint largely practices a standard build-your-own-meal philosophy, where one chooses the base (pita, wrap, or bowl with two kinds of rice), the main ingredient (falafel, gyros, chicken, or steak), a set number of toppings from a wide selection of standards (fried vegetables like eggplant or cauliflower, dips such as hummus and baba ghanoush, salads such as tabbouleh and red cabbage, vegetables such as olives, tomatoes, turnips, or onions, and cheese), and a sauce (garlic, hot, tahina). There is also a small selection of side dishes, a lentil soup, and a standard baklava.

Photo by Gina Hanna.

We ordered a spicy rice bowl with falafel, a steak pita, lentil soup, and a side of six stuffed grape leaves.

Photo by Gina Hanna.

I had a spicy rice bowl with falafel ($10.99), fried eggplant, hummus, baba ghanoush, a Jerusalem salad, red cabbage, and a generous portion of hot sauce. Ingredient-by-ingredient, the impressions were generally good. Starting with the main element, as a person who is not a falafel fan, I will say that this is one of the strongest falafel I’ve ever had. The cabbage salad and the fried eggplant were also respectable, while the baba ghanoush was amazingly smoky and definitely the strongest topping in my book. Shawarma Joint’s play on the Jerusalem salad was a classical cucumber-tomato-onion salad a tahina dressing.

The hot sauce was appropriately fire-inducing, and while it was surprisingly only described as hot sauce, both my wife and I felt that it was likely red zhug. I thought the hummus was ho-hum. The spicy rice was definitely not spicy, and it didn’t have a clear flavor profile.

Photo by Gina Hanna.

Justifiably scared of Shawarma Joint’s gargantuan bowls, my wife had a steak pita ($9.99) with baba ghanoush, Jerusalem salad, purple cabbage, and garlic sauce. My wife said that the steak was very good, and as we all know, garlic sauce cannot be bad by definition. The pita for my wife’s sandwich seemed to not be on the freshest side, which was surprising because the extra pita that came with my bowl was fresh and amazing.

We also got the lentil soup and a side of six stuffed grape leaves.

Photo by Gina Hanna.

As far as sides go, the lentil soup ($3.99 in a combo with a fountain drink) was appropriately earthy and a great warm-up dish for winter.

Photo by Gina Hanna.

The grape leaves ($5.99) were outstanding. Despite my wife’s protests that this is not how her grandmother makes them, let me tell you quite clearly: Shawarma Joint grape leaves are how God intended stuffed grape leaves to be made. They were tightly packed with rice, heavy on the oil, and had a strong leaf taste.

Shawarma Joint’s menu items hit the standard checkboxes of the Middle Eastern food in North America. Sadly, it does not give the koshary of Sayed Hanafy in Cairo or the sabich of Tel Aviv’s Frishman, but it gives a falafel that will melt a cold Midwestern heart and all the grape leaves your soul desires.

Shawarma Joint
102 E University Ave
Urbana
M-Sa 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Top image by Gina Hanna.