To describe any one dish from the Middle East as being "just so" can be dicey. After all, small differences can become vast gulfs of uncertainty and conflict. The cuisine of that region is a mere player on that stage.
What does this mean? Quite simply, not all falafels are the same. Just as chili and barbecue present differently throughout the U.S., foods in the Middle East have specific regional representations. The problem is the same word may be used to describe a dish. Take kanafa, for example. In Egypt, kanafa can be a finger-shaped pastry similar to Greek kataifi, while in Lebanon, kanafa is a breakfast dish made with semolina and stuffed with a sweet cheese. In Palestine, kanafa is sweet cheese topped with a crunchy shredded phyllo made vividly bright orange and sprinkled with bits of chopped pistachio.
The orange kanafa is what will greet you immediately inside the doors of La Shish Kabob. Last January, convivial proprietor and Jerusalem native Izzat Freitekh opened his 24-seat counter-service sandwich shop in a small strip center in East Charlotte, beset by a steady stream of traffic during the lunch hours. Walking into this bright interior reminded me of the sameness of sandwich shops throughout the Middle East: the grill line on one side, a display case packed with salads, dips, pastries and desserts, and a cluster of a few functional tables. All this is in a slightly feng shui-challenged atmosphere.
Freitekh shouts a greeting to those entering even as he listens to religious recordings and turns the kofta skewers on the grill. His grilled kofta, minced beef or lamb, is served either on pita as a sandwich or on a spicy rice mixture as an entrée. By comparison, though, I prefer kofta, like burgers, cooked over charcoal.
Better were the excellent kibbeh. House-made kibbeh is hard to find around here, and frozen, food-service kibbeh loses so much in translation. Freitekh wraps his bulgur coating snuggly around the ground meat speckled with pine nuts, breathing new life into this ancient culinary formula. This kibbeh is only made better when swiped through the hummus or baba ghanoush, properly redolent of smoky eggplant. Additionally, Freitekh offers his meats with muhummara, a popular spicy red pepper condiment in Palestine.
The shawarma was less successful, with the chicken spending too much time on the vertical skewer (perhaps a victim of the Mecklenburg County health department heat requirements). The grape leaves, studded with chopped tomatoes, are stuffed with rice, not meat. Although I am not a proponent of tabbouleh sitting in a case, this one was still crisp and clean-tasting.
La Shish Kabob also has rotisserie chickens, which are wrapped in house-made taboon, aka shrek. This two-foot disc of peasant bread is enjoyed throughout the Middle East. A taboon, which gives this bread its name, is a large heated dome upon which dough bakes quickly. Traditionally, this inexpensive bread was cheaper than paper and was used to wrap meats. Eventually, it became the standard to wrap rotisserie chicken, as the juices imbue the bread with flavor.
Daily specials are on a board near the cash register. A whole halal lamb shank braised in a mix of broth and spices and served on saffron rice is less than 10 bucks — a sweet deal. Signage is in both Arabic and English, although, oddly enough, there seems to be more description on the Arabic side.