If you grew up in an Arab household, the Pacific Northwest can be a hard place to dine.
Without the sizable population of Arabs who reside in California, New York or Michigan, restaurants here that advertise Middle Eastern cooking cater too often to a palate that can’t discern saltless chickpea mash and stovetop meat from the utter ecstasy of a smooth hummus and crispy shawarma dripping with fat.
Word-of-mouth is the best way to find the real thing in these parts. Luckily, the Iraqi and Iranian communities I was raised with talk a lot about food. One of the first things a family friend asked me when I first moved to Seattle three years ago was whether I’d tried Garlic Crush.
In a dark world where some people think chocolate hummus is an acceptable and totally OK thing to eat, Garlic Crush gives me hope. It’s a casual, Lebanese street joint owned by an actual Lebanese person, Maher “Matt” Jabbour. Outside of my mother’s kitchen, it’s a place I find worthy to take my non-Arab friends and delight in their discovery of some of the Middle Eastern staples I know and love and grew up eating. (“Damn … Oh wow … Damn,” were the words a friend used a few months ago when he had his first few bites of the restaurant’s beef shawarma plate.)
After noticing a dearth of quick and quality Lebanese eats in the area, Jabbour quit his job at Microsoft to start the restaurant in 2008. He’s got locations in Bellevue, Issaquah, Redmond and now — in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, where I recently took three friends, and the generous portions managed to feed everyone dinner and dessert for $49.16 before tip.
It’s easy to miss the restaurant in the bustle of Broadway, but if you spot the cartoon garlic on the storefront sign, you’re in the right place.
Ye who seek frills shall not find any here. Though the menu features some of Jabbour’s family recipes, the inside vibes are more grab-and-go than mom-and-pop. Most people took their food to-go. After ordering at the front, I took a seat with my companions at a table close to the door, and stared ahead at the prettiest thing in the joint: the spinning, glistening shawarma meat hanging vertically from stainless steel spits.
The food arrived quickly, in the space of about three One Republic songs that played while we waited. We could barely fit everything onto the table: most entrees come with a piece of pita bread, and either salad or lentil soup. Both are pleasant, and inspired by Jabbour’s mother’s cooking. Of the two, I’d recommend the soup. It is hearty and lemony. After just one spoonful, my former colleague and fellow Arab Mohammed Kloub declared it tasted like his mother’s rendition.
You can’t go wrong with any of the shawarma plates — especially chicken ($12.95). The sliced meat, marinated for hours in many spices, is moist and crispy at the edges. It rests on a bed of turmeric rice, which is bordered by the best restaurant-style hummus I’ve had in Seattle and whipped garlic paste that Jabbour calls “the Lebanese mayo.” My friend Susana, Moh’s girlfriend, added that she would eat it off a flip-flop.
If the shawarma sandwiches or plates you’ve had before aren’t accompanied by this paste, you’ve been robbed. You can dip fries in it, or pick some up on your spoon or fork as you load up with rice and meat. I truly do not believe you can have too much garlic, but a warning to the fainthearted or halitosis-concerned: True to the restaurant’s name and the cuisine at large, most of the dishes here are pretty loaded with garlic already.
The veggie mezza plate ($12.50) looks like a finely manicured garden and is ideal for vegetarians. All on one oval plate: smoky baba ghannouj and hummus; two crispy, hot falafels covered in tahini; a small serving of tabboule (a Christmas color salad of finely chopped bulgur wheat, parsley, tomato and mint); a couple of dolma (stuffed grape leaves); and a pile of pickled cucumbers and turnips, which are bright and a fun shade of pink.
We liked the classic gyro sandwich ($8.25), too, but the meat isn’t made in-house. So if you want to take advantage of the restaurant’s strengths, stick with shawarma. The rosewater-infused Lebanese rice pudding ($3.95) is also cool and refreshing as heck at the end.
Last week, I asked Jabbour how he felt about the rise of restaurants selling shawarma now. When he first opened, many people weren’t familiar with the dish.
“I love seeing it,” he said. “It means that people are finally understanding the food.”
I hope they all take notes from Garlic Crush.
Garlic Crush, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. daily; 1417 Broadway, Seattle; 206-860-3989, garliccrush.com