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Papa Schwarma

by Amy Searll / 14.08.2013

Food that’s associated with certain periods of your life, the kind that formed part of a ritual or memory, is the most precious kind. Enter The Schwarma Co, a restaurant that has in a sense, been in my family for years. Schwarma Co used to be in the once-thriving Mutual Village centre. And every Saturday night when I was younger, my aunt, my cousin and I would drive to Schwarma Co, get takeaway laffas and pile into my cousin’s bed, munching and watching the Crime Channel. So to me, Schwarma Co is the taste of my childhood Saturday nights. I’m happy to say that that taste, now found on Grant Avenue in Norwood, has remained as delicious as I remember.

The interior of Schwarma Co Norwood is much bigger than the Rivonia shop, with a small salad counter, and a raised deck crammed with tables. On any given lunch or supper time, Schwarma Co is packed. (So packed, that they’ve just renovated and opened a snazzy new upstairs section). It’s not one of those places where you sit for hours over a leisurely three course meal. There are no frills here, it’s all about tucking in to huge, fragrant portions of Middle Eastern food.

It smells of cooked meat and garlic, you can constantly hear the sizzle of meat on the grill. It’s very reminiscent of most Israeli restaurants. And because the place is so small, there’s always a buzz. It feels exactly like what it is – a small, vibrant neighbourhood restaurant.

If the UN had a restaurant, it would be this place. On the Tuesday night I was there (researching this article with another laffa) I saw a table full of Muslim men, Italians, Jews, West Africans and some Brits. How ironic, that Middle Eastern food should create such togetherness and peace… in Joburg. Maybe they should have the next session of parliament or the Middle East peace talks here, hoping for the the same effect.

Now to the important stuff, the food. Run by identical (and rather dashing), Israeli-Arab twins, Schwarma Co specialises in authentic Middle Eastern food with some western dishes thrown in like burgers, ribs and mushroom sauce steak, just to please the meat and two veg crowd. They handle the western food just as well as the Middle Eastern fare.

The real meat of the menu though, is in the traditional dishes; laffas (wraps), and pitas filled with lamb, chicken, beef, or their famous falafel.

The theme of unique tastes is carried through into Schwarma Co’s drinks which makes a refreshing change from the usual iced teas and diet cold drinks.

To start, we had the homemade lemonade and their traditional mint tea, made the Bedouin way.

The mint tea is half a bushel of mint soaked in hot water, served with a black tea teabag should you want it, and what they call a ‘white brownie’. It’s a small, fudgy flourless cake with just a hint of cinnamon.

The lemonade is wonderful, but don’t expect something cold drink – like – it’s deliciously tart with only a light sweetness.

Meat Sizzle

I’ve heard that the ribs (from R90 – R155) and burgers (R60), are very good, and I know that the grilled deboned chicken (R110), is excellent, but like I said, you can’t go wrong with laffa or pita. The laffas are what I call a Jewish portion – way more than generous.

I had the lamb shish in laffa (R60); tender lamb mince, spiced, shaped into a shish kebab, and chopped up into the laffa. The shish was perfectly pink in the middle with an aromatic tang that I couldn’t put my finger on. I’m sure there was a little cumin in there, maybe some peppercorns. It certainly didn’t lack flavour.

I filled the laffa with hummus, red cabbage, garlicky tahina and diced onion and tomato. Unlike most places, Schwarma Co has an enormous range of fillings, salads and toppings. As well as all the usual suspects (hummus, babaganoush, tomato and cucumber salad), they have two kinds of chatzilim (marinated brinjals), a delicious chunky chilli relish, coleslaw made with red cabbage, the finest spiced onion salad… and the list goes on.

My friend had the lamb kebab laffa (R60), almost like espatada cubes with a delicious char tumbled into the laffa. The laffa was filled with chatzilim and chilli, the eggplant lending a wonderful almost nutty flavour.

For a few Rand more you also have the option of having all laffas and pitas ‘on a platter’ which means without bread, just meat and salads. I didn’t have it this time round, but I must just mention that the falafel, which you can order by the piece (R4 each), is the closest to any I’ve had in Israel – fluffy and creamy inside with a crisp exterior. If you don’t like falafel, you’ve never had it at Schwarma Co.

The service is usually brisk and friendly, though when the restaurant fills up the waiters can come across as a little standoffish.

At the end of the meail, Schwarma Co is just my favourite kind of place. A far cry from the perfectly decorated restaurants of the northern suburbs that lack in personality, this is a crowded, noisy, wonderful place where the tablecloths don’t match the curtains. It makes the eating experience, as well as the food, unpretentious, enjoyable, and completely different to anything else in Joburg.

It’s a neighbourhood joint making food so good people come from two or three neighborhoods away to enjoy it. It’s the kind of place where they’ll ask about your family and feed you food that tastes like it came out of your Israeli grandmother’s kitchen.

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