This is the first of two pieces on the shawarma found between the Med Center and South Loop. Part 2 comes next Thursday.
The Shell station on the corner of Almeda and MacGregor, just east of the Med Center and Hermann Park, is not the kind of place suburban teenagers loiter to smoke pot and drink Slurpees, but where the cashier works behind a thick Plexiglass partition and abandoned cars fill the adjacent grass lot. So you’d be forgiven if you’ve never stopped in for a look around, or decided that a few more blocks was a manageable distance on an empty tank. If you’ve been inside, however, you might know of the gem it’s hiding: Shawarma Stop.
Shawarma Stop is a grab-and-go counter serving the best shawarma and baklava in Houston. Savory sandwich wraps made with deeply aromatic spit roast chicken, lamb, or beef—basted in its own fat for hours and slathered in garlic sauce—are sold at fast-food prices to in-the-know locals and adventurous foodies. It’s one of many similar Middle Eastern and Mediterranean businesses, all situated along the same two-mile stretch of road, each more nondescript than the last. Shawarma Alley, as this writer has come to know it, is this under-the-radar community of roughly a dozen grocers, food trucks, cafés, and hookah bars dispersed along Almeda Road between Hermann Park and the South Loop.
Houston has a tendency to hide amazing food finds in plain sight, from the taco stand kept secret by a lack of foot traffic or a strip mall noodle house serving the best pho in town. And even if a place manages to stand out, it joins an ocean of noteworthy eateries. Perhaps this is why Shawarma Alley and its vendors go largely unnoticed by the hordes of commuters that drive by each day. Business never seems to boom, but a flow of repeat customers keeps the doors open. And you have to be curious, because all of Shawarma Alley’s food vendors and about half of the general businesses are literally inside or adjacent to gas stations.
Abu Omar Halal is one such business. The shawarma and falafel truck with recognizable red lettering has grown from its original Almeda location to a local chain with multiple vehicles spread throughout the city. Still, parked outside an Exxon station off Hepburn and Almeda, the black truck is no more glamorous than its competition. The food, however, is quite distinguishable.
The small kitchen is decked out with three rotating spit roasts stacked with dripping towers of chicken, lamb and beef. The savory seasoned meats, along with delicious house-made garlic sauce and veggies, fill the famous shawarma wraps that give Abu Omar its proud reputation. The full menu also features Middle Eastern staples like falafel plates, fried kibbeh, and stuffed grape leaves.
Just up the road, at the intersection of Old Spanish Trail and Almeda, a food truck of a different variety slings its renown Mediterranean fare outside a Chevron station. Gyro King is the only gyro-centric food truck on Shawarma Alley. Though most of the nearby Middle Eastern cafes offer a Greek pita sandwich on their menus, none can compete with the self-described king. The house specialty is served on soft, doughy pita filled with lettuce, onion, and tender bits of lamb doused in a spicy mix of tzatziki and hot sauce.
Gyro King offers a chicken variety as well, and a surprisingly tasty falafel sandwich, but the real surprise are the fresh fruit juices. The menu features eight fresh-pressed juices with ingredients like kale, celery, beets, apple, carrots, and ginger. All made to order, delicious, and (at $6) markedly cheaper than what you’ll find throughout the city.
Across the street from Gyro King, in the parking lot of a Citgo station that doubles as an Arabic grocery store, there sits yet another permanently fixed truck called Tasty Sandwich. The fare at Tasty Sandwich is predictably similar to its surrounding contemporaries: Shawarma and falafel sandwiches, gyros, and a few Middle Eastern dishes. While the offerings are derivative, the quality is good. Roasted meats, tangy tzatziki, and sweet and savory garlic sauce fill the crave-worthy menu of self-described Mediterranean sandwiches.
The beauty of Shawarma Alley lies both in its obscurity and its defining Houstonism. New York may have its culturally saturated bodegas, but Texas has its gas stations. Whether home to taco shops, barbecue smokehouses, or shawarma kitchens, gas stations in Texas often hide more than meets the eye. What seems at first like a barren stretch of Almeda is in fact a community of Arabic businesses serving authentic Middle Eastern fare to loyal customers. Yet, one may drive through Shawarma Alley a dozen times before noticing even a fraction of its otherworldly charms. Once noticed, however, those charms give the area an unmistakably more interesting identity.