Grab and go or sit and sip Beirut style at Malek Shawarma Mediterranean Café in Amherst

  • Handmade furniture, colorful lanterns and Lebanese landscapes enliven the interior of the Malek Shawarma Mediterranean Cafe in Amherst.

  • Malek Shawarma Mediterranean Cafe opened on East Pleasant Street in Amherst last fall.

  • Comfy couches give patrons a place to sit and sip tea or Turkish coffee.

  • Cook Nedal Al-Kabani slices a cone of beef to make shawarma, the Malek Shawarma Mediterranean Café’s specialty.

  • GAZETTE STAFF/JOSHUA MURRAYThe beef for shawarma is marinated overngiht.

  • Ali Dayeh, manager and co-owner, uses his Lebanese family’s recipes. Before opening, he served as an apprentice at his cousin’s restaurant in Michigan.

  • Sliced beef shawarma, served with tomatoes, pickles, onions, parsley and tahini sauce

  • Beef shawarma is an easy lunch entrée to eat on the run. All the sandwiches are under $7. 

Staff Writer
Published: 4/14/2017 4:19:14 PM

If in Beirut, you might grab some shawarma for lunch as you pass one of the street vendors there. But there is no need to travel to the Middle East to sample authentic Lebanese cuisine.

You can get a taste of the shredded meat, slow cooked on a rotating skewer, at Malek Shawarma Mediterranean Café in Amherst, a small restaurant tucked into a block of businesses on East Pleasant Street.

The top round beef is sliced and marinated overnight before it is cooked and then shaved off and wrapped in a pita with tomatoes, pickles, onions and parsley. Chicken is also prepared the same way for those who prefer it.

House made tahini sauce, a sesame paste, is drizzled on top. Toum, a garlic spread made with olive oil and lemon can be added inside. Sriracha sauce is also on hand for those who like their food spicy.

It is a simple lunch that’s easy to grab on the go for $6.49.

“I grew up in the Middle East and I love the tahini sauce,” said Ebtihal Al-Kafa, as she waited in line on a recent Tuesday. She made a special trip from her home in Springfield to get the shawarma, a meal she remembers fondly from her childhood in Saudi Arabia.

She particularly likes the Lebanese version, she said, because of the thin bread that’s used. 

“This is the first thing I get when I get off the plane in Lebanon,” said Ali Dayeh, 21, who opened the café in September. His mother, Eliana Dabbous, the co-owner, runs Eliana's Barber Shop next door which is attached by an entryway.

Patrons looking for a haircut often stumble into the café, says Dayeh. To their surprise, they see no barber chairs, but a big cone of meat, dripping, as it slow cooks behind the counter. 

“I tell my customers to come hungry when they come for a haircut,” Dabbous said.

A culture’s hospitality

In starting his business, Dayeh says, he wanted to share the flavors of the country where his parents were born. While his late father, Taquel Dayeh, ran the convenience store Cousins’ Food Market in the same block where his restaurant is now, and his mother worked at hair salons throughout the area, Dayeh remembers childhood trips to visit relatives in the Middle East, during which he was greeted with snacks and tea. Lebanon is a place that revolves around food, he says. “I’m serious, Lebanese people go all in when it comes to hospitality.”

That hospitality is something he hopes to recreate at the café.

On occasion, he says, if he likes a particular customer, he will bring over a free baklava or coffee. If college students show their student IDs, they can get free sides of homemade hummus. 

The menu at Malek Shawarma Mediterranean Café is small with nearly everything made from scratch. It features dishes like the kafta, ground beef in a wrap with a blend of spices or the shish tawook, marinated chicken breast served with a creamy garlic sauce. All the sandwiches are under $7. 

“This is very authentic food, it is not Americanized,” Dabbous said.

There is also no shortage of vegetarian options, like the falafel wrap or the tabbouli salad, chopped parsley, tomatoes, green onions and cracked wheat mixed with olive oil and lemon juice.

For those who are interested in trying a bit of everything, Dayeh offers platters which are samplers of the whole menu.

The idea for a new café came after Dabbous was forced to move her barbershop two years ago from the Carriage Shops block which was torn down to make way for a new apartment building. She took the space a short distance away where the Mercantile store did business for decades. She quickly realized, however, that it was more than she needed.

“I didn’t plan for the café at all when I moved into the location, but the shop was huge for me,” she said. She thought about serving coffee and tea, but the idea of the restaurant took hold and mother and son built a wall to separate the space into two shops. 

Before opening, Dayeh spent several months shadowing the chef at his cousin’s restaurant located in an Arab neighborhood in Michigan.

Now, while Dabbous spends her days cutting and dyeing hair, her son is just feet away slicing vegetables.

The pair has also hired one employee, Nedal Al-Kabani, a Syrian refugee, who does most of the food preparation.

Lively decor

The small café is located not far from the center of town, but it is easy to miss if you aren’t looking for it. The emblem on the sign outside is a cartoon cone of shawarma meat wearing a golden crown.

Inside the walls are covered with paintings of brick pillars resembling the country’s architecture and pictures of Lebanon landscapes. Colorful lanterns hang from the ceiling and are tucked by the front window.

All the wooden furniture is handmade; cozy couches are placed in the front, near a large window.

The restaurant faces a lot where parking is free, so there is time to linger and sip on a Turkish coffee, an unfiltered drink much thicker and powerful than its American counterpart. It is made with coffee beans that are finely ground and simmered, says Dayeh.

Grab and go

Take-out, though, seems to be a big part of Malek Shawarma Mediterranean Café’s business as the wraps on the menu are convenient for grab-and-go dining, much like the Beirut street fare.

If you are pressed for time, the wraps fit easily in one hand, so you can eat lunch while taking a walk or a drive. The wait time between placing an order and being ready to head out the door is only minutes.

Dayeh sold me on trying the beef shawarma, which he says is one of the most popular menu items. “Beef shawarma is like it’s own category of beef,” he said. And he’s right, the flavor is hard to describe, though I found it similar to Greek gyro wraps that I’ve had in the past, but without the tzatziki sauce. The juicy shawarma beef falls apart in your mouth.  

The wrap isn’t huge and doesn’t come with a side dish, but it was a filling lunch for me.

Dayeh uses the family recipe he learned while an apprentice at his cousin’s restaurant. 

When preparing the meat, the first step is to trim as much of the fat as possible before the beef is sliced and marinated in a spice blend shipped in from Lebanon. Vinegar and lemon are added.

Dayeh says it’s been a great experience to see the café go from just an idea, to a working establishment. Business, so far, has been slow and steady, with more customers coming in as news of the café spreads throughout the neighborhood. 

“It feels good to see it all come together.”

Following is Dayeh’s recipe for falafel.

Falafel

1 cup of chickpeas

1 tablespoon of cumin

1 tablespoon of salt

 ½ tablespoon of paprika

A pinch of cilantro

Vegetable oil

Soak chickpeas overnight and then grind them in a blender until very fine before mixing in the cilantro and the spices.

Heat up a pot with enough oil to submerge small balls until it is sizzling. Gently, so not to crumble, take a small portion of the chickpea mix and roll it into a ball in the palm of your hand, until it is firmly packed together. Submerge it in the oil and cook until crispy brown. Depending on the size of the pieces, this should yield between 10 and 20 falafels.

Malek Shawarma Mediteranean Café is located at 11 East Pleasant St., Amherst. It is open Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. To see the full menu, visit malekshawarma.com.

Lisa Spear can be reached at lspear@gazettenet.com.

Lunch Break is an occasional feature which checks out lunch offerings at area restaurants.


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