Spot Check: The Chipotle of Shawarma
Kearny Mesa’s new arrival SimSim is immaculate, and decent
NOTE: For restaurant reviews in San Diego Magazine, I visit at least twice, sometimes three or four times. There are many reasons for this (a cook might’ve called in sick or hungover, staff may be moody due to personal or political reasons). “Spot Check” is an impression of a restaurant after just one visit. Not as in-depth. But I believe it still has value. After all, most people form their impression of a restaurant after one visit.
This place is cleaner than my doctor’s office. Surfaces look polished, corners look toothbrushed. If a restaurant has dirty floors or tables are schmutzed with fries and salad shrapnel, it gives off a certain don’t-give-a-damnness. And the customer naturally makes inferences from clutter—specifically, that the kitchen gives a similarly small amount of damn.
SimSim is immaculate.
SimSim is a new, local concept based on shawarma, which—like the Greek gyros—is a descendant of the almighty Turkish doner kebab. I guarantee SimSim has a branding book. The branding is Steve Jobsian and excellent. And in that branding book, I guarantee the words “the Chipotle of shawarma” are included. You choose your meat, they go down the line adding extras and sides, and you pay at the end of the counter. The imitation is no crime. It’s a great business model. We’re busy. We need food.
For shawarma, large cones of meat are impaled on a vertical spit and rotate slowly all day, cooking in their own juices. The term “shawarma” means “turning” in Arabic (just as “gyros” is Greek for “turn”). The fat melts and drips down the cone, basting the rest of the meat as it cooks to make it more flavorful and juicy. The gentle spinning motion also redistributes the internal juices, swishing and swashing the moisture into all the crannies. The meat is cut to order, so it should have that crispy, browned exterior and juicy inside that you get from the ends of a rib eye.
Everything at SimSim looks fresh, ultra green, from scratch. Like they’re doing it right, presenting it in a Tender Greens sort of way that reduces anxiety in guests not familiar with Middle Eastern specialties.
I start with their bowls to taste the ingredients alone, without the cure-all of warm bread. The beef-lamb combination is everything you could hope for, moist and tender and spiced just right. For SimSim’s basic chicken bowl, the bulgur at the base is light and delicious. However, the meat from the spit, while perfectly seasoned, is dry. As salesy people would say, one of shawarma’s USPs (unique selling positions) is tender, moist meat.
That’s okay. No need to panic. I’ll just blend yogurt sauce into it. Yogurt sauce cures everything but bad politics. It is the absolute cornerstone of the shawarma experience—what ranch dressing is for getting kids to eat vegetables. It needs to be bold, flavorful, the “wow sauce.” And theirs is flat, all high and tart notes of lemon and yogurt, as if prizing healthfulness over flavor. It needs more punch, more flavor, more depth—in other words, more garlic and salt, maybe even a nontraditional touch of good olive oil. To solve that, I mix it with a side of their delicious and potent garlic sauce, and the bowl works nicely.
I try four of their sides. Their muhammara (a Middle Eastern spread of red peppers and nuts, like a crimson pesto) is loaded with spice and the sweet flower taste of diced and cooked red peppers—but, again, undersalted. Their hummus with sprouted garbanzo beans (a nod to the healthy crowd), tahini, and sumac (a lemony Middle Eastern spice, one of the best spices) is nice, if undersalted. Their baba ghanoush is different from most and very good—almost pickled like a relish.
I’m most excited for their moutabel. You simply don’t see it too often. But it’s shocking. Their riff on the Jordanian side dish (the chef is Jordanian, a staff member tells me)—roasted and smoked eggplant, arugula, tahini, garlic, and yogurt—tastes fermented, almost carbonated. This means one of two things—the eggplant has been intentionally lacto-fermented, or the tahini could be a little off. The chef assures me it’s not lacto-fermented. I ask if he’ll try it and tell me if it’s how he intended. He does, and he says that’s how roasted eggplant tastes.
I have not experienced carbonation or fermentation when I roast eggplant. It’s a new experience, and a jarring one.
Their Indulge Feta Shawarma Bowl is the best order, chicken mixed with beef and lamb, then tossed with garbanzo beans, pomegranate seeds, parsley, mint, sumac, pine nuts, and crunchy seasoned pita chips with both tomato and tahini sauces. Those pita chips and meat together are unbeatable.
The shawarmas have nicely browned saj flatbread rolled tight around beef and lamb, diced potato, pomegranate seeds, parsley, and tahini. With the garlic spread, it’s good. Most things are good with their garlic spread. They’d do well to incorporate it as a base into other sauces.
As for the fries, they need to go. Next to their fresh, authentically Middle Eastern dishes, these sad things look recently unfrozen and fast-foodish.
So many things are close here, and promising. The concept is perfect in this quick-service, healthier, fresher restaurant world. The fact that they serve muhammara and moutabel is rare in San Diego. Almost everything seems housemade, save for those fries, probably. They seem to be cooking healthier, leaner. I don’t begrudge them that. But if that’s the case, they need to advertise that in their branding. If that's not the case, they need more salt, garlic, fat, and flavor.
7051 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, Kearny Mesaeatsimsim