Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Not Just Shawarma

One balmy Wednesday, Matt and I- along with our favorite foodie couple Sanju and Cutie- braved the Baclaran Day traffic and headed to Manila for what should be some really delicious Persian food. With Middle Eastern cuisine quickly being integrated into the Filipino diet (I do not know anyone who has not tried shawarma), I am actually curious to find what could be considered as authentic Keema (ground beef sautéed in spices) and Kebabs. Shawarma Snack Center (SSC) in Ermita comes highly recommended by the abovementioned couple, and so far, Matt and I pointed out that they have yet to disappoint us.

Seeing the imposing two-level restaurant, I quickly assume that this is not just a shawarma joint. At the door, you are greeted by two Egyptian statues that look like they belong in the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum and not in the middle of the former red light district. Once inside, though, the décor is purely utilitarian, save for a few Arabian lamps hanging from the ceiling. There is a display counter with various pickled vegetables and some ready-made dips and salads. What really struck me, though, was the crowd: almost all of the diners were Middle-eastern baby boomers, either sipping tea or sharing a shesha pipe or both. This, if anything, is a strong sign of the restaurant’s authenticity.

We let our friends order for us since, judging from their repartee with the manager, they appeared to be long-time patrons of the restaurant. Matt and I had a few favorites that we told them about and they happily obliged us.

To start things off, we had some Beef and Hummus (sautéed ground beef on top of a chickpea and tahini dip) and Motabal (grilled eggplant and yougurt dip) with flat bread. The beef and hummus was just alright, although I appreciated the fact that they included whole chickpeas to the mix. I love Motabal, even the commercialized variety, so SSC’s version was a winner for me. Matt, who is not a big fan of eggplant, thought so, too.

The mains for sharing came in rapid succession, and our table was almost too small for the amount of food that was coming our way. My all-time favorite Keema did not fail to impress. The flavors emanating from the ground beef was just right- fragrant, oily (in a good way) and with just the right amount of heat. With a little bit of garlic sauce, it was simply off-the-charts. If you love Keema as much as I do, this might be the benchmark for all the other local Persian restaurants.

I admit the Keema can still be subject of debate, but SSC’s Ox Brain is undeniably the best I have ever tried. As we were ordering, the manager said that it was out-of-stock, but seeing our sad, pathetic faces after that, she got some from the original- but much smaller- SSC right across. This is truly the stuff of legend- the brain was generously flavored with garlic and completely devoid of the funkiness you sometimes get from ox brain. The texture was that of a very creamy scrambled egg, its taste similar to that of penoy (the more edible part of the infamous balut). I know that the comparison could not possibly help its case, but you have to try it for yourself. Just dab a bit of it on any protein and the instant effect is that of foie gras- adding instant richness and umami.

We also ordered Beef Kebab, which was a favorite of ours. Unfortunately, it was quite dry and the flavor was oddly overpowering.

Any good Middle-Eastern meal would not be complete without lamb, so we ordered the Sizzling Lamb which was recommended by the manager. It was quite good and Matt liked it a lot because it was extremely tender and seasoned to perfection. I was still fixated on the Keema at this point, so I barely touched it. Matt did not mind, I’m sure.

Another surprise hit was the Chili Liver- sliced beef liver sautéed with green chili. Again, the flavors were so clean that it tasted more like a steak than innards. This dish was perfect with the tasty and fluffy Biryani rice.

To accompany our carnivorous spread, Cutie ordered a refreshing cucumber salad- it was the perfect side dish to balance the fattiness of the meat and the heat of the spices. Simple yet very effective.

Stuffed from our heavy, protein-rich dinner, we needed a little help with digestion. Sanju had some strong Turkish Coffee, while Matt, Cutie and I shared a pot of the equally-strong Rabea tea. To top it all off, we also shared two shesa pipes- one apple flavored, the other lemon. It was a truly delightful experience, smoking that pipe and sipping tea, surrounded by Middle-Easterns as we all watched a World Cup match on the flat-screen. I almost felt like I was in a Turkish café, just absorbing the local color. It felt different, yet comfortable.

We capped-off the evening with a few drinks at Café Havana in Adriatico St., since SSC did not serve liquor, like most Persian restaurants in the country. After some mojitos, beers and a round of shots, we were ready to call it a night, pretty sure that by then, it was safe to sleep after that huge and delicious dinner. No nightmares that night, only sweet dreams about Bradley Cooper and ox brain.

Shawarma Snack Center
R. Salas cor. A. Mabini Streets
Ermita, Manila
Tel. no. (632) 5254541


Miguel said...

Interesting..I like this kind of food. With Sehesa Pipes included pa...cool!!

Chinkee said...

Hi Mig! Yeah, super cool:-) Everything about the place feels authentic. Too bad they don't serve alcohol...