Is this the best shawarma in Los Angeles?

The chicken shawarma combo with fries, toum (garlic sauce) and pickles, at Hollywood Shawarma.
(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times)

Among the wonderful things about having a community of Lebanese friends is that when they return to Los Angeles after a visit to Lebanon they invariably show up with an edible gift: mixed snack nuts, a local tradition that began centuries ago via land and maritime trade routes; pastries in tins from one of Beirut’s many sweet shops; primo za’atar from Goodies, the city’s fancy gourmet market, or a spice blend made by a relative; a stash of extra-buttery pine nuts. These gestures are just part of their cultural DNA.

The other week one friend kindly dropped off some baklava and other desserts. “Oh, by the way,” he said, “you should check out Hollywood Shawarma. New owner. He’s Syrian. I think it’s the best shawarma in L.A. now.”

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Syrian cuisine was already on my mind. This week’s review is about Nawal, a weekend backyard pop-up in Solano Canyon, near Dodger Stadium. Brothers Armbay and Dotee Zakaria, along with their cousin Danny Zakaria, serve an extra-soothing version of fatteh, along with a few other breakfast dishes and wraps, from a window cut out of the wooden fence surrounding the house where Dotee and his family live.

The family’s story is as intricate as the food. Armbay and Dotee adapt the Syrian recipes from their mother, Nawal, though both of their parents are Circassian by heritage. Their journey underpins the impetus for the brothers to create their weekly pop-up. I’m very happy for a weekly destination for homey fatteh … and equally curious to see how the direction of the brothers’ Syrian-Circassian cooking will keep evolving.

Fatteh, center, and other Syrian-inspired dishes at weekend pop-up Nawal.
Fatteh, center, and other Syrian-inspired dishes at weekend pop-up Nawal.
(Oscar Mendoza / For The Times)

Fatteh is to breakfast as shawarma is to late-night nourishment. Adham Kamal, who took over Hollywood Shawarma just over a year ago, grew up in As-Suwayda (sometimes also spelled Sweida) in southwestern Syria, about 70 miles south of Damascus and near the Jordanian border. Kamal has been working at shawarma stands since he was a teenager. Before arriving in Los Angeles in 2021, he was living — and making shawarma — in Venezuela, where Syrians have been migrating and creating a community since the late 19th century.

The menu at Hollywood Shawarma is stripped to its classic essentials. Kamal stacks two variations of meat on vertical rotating spits: lamb and beef (the combination is “lahme” in Arabic) and chicken. The marinades and spicing make the shawarma. Kamal won’t share all his secrets, but he builds his seasoning from traditional baharat, a blend of warm and sharp spices that usually includes black pepper, coriander, cinnamon, cumin and cardamom. Lemon and garlic infuse the chicken.

Each has traditional sauces: tahini-based tarator for the lamb and beef, toum (whipped garlic sauce) for the chicken.

This is the best shawarma I have tasted in Southern California — and I have been scouting for several years to find a place that would draw me back regularly. Kamal’s versions are direct in their deliciousness. Each serving has the requisite mix of lush and crisp pieces; the meats are wrapped with their appropriate sauce, sliced tomato and pickles for acid and snap. A key move: Kamal finishes the wraps on the griddle, turning them until they’re browned and crackling.

Your most difficult choice, if you’re not deciding between the lamb-beef or the chicken and sharing one of each with someone, is the size of your order. There are three options: a handheld stuffed pita or 12- and 24-inch versions that come with serviceable fries.

More than one friend from across the Arab world asks for their shawarma to be rolled in only one side of the pita. It’s about proportions. A shawarma wrap is not a burrito. It was designed to be compact and intense in flavor. Kamal gladly makes a one-sided wrap. I now also prefer it this way.

The larger variations are made using a familiar Los Angeles staff of life — big, thin flour tortillas. They admirably stand in for khubz, the papery bread traditionally used for shawarma. Word of mouth about Kamal’s arrival has been strong in the local Arabic community, and Kamal is planning a second location; he’s invested in the equipment to make khubz on a saj (a domed griddle; the word can also refer to the bread on which it is made).

The chicken shawarma combo at Hollywood Shawarma.
The chicken shawarma combo with fries, toum (garlic sauce) and pickles at Hollywood Shawarma.
(Bill Addison/ Los Angeles Times)

No need to wait for fresh khubz: Go experience Kamal’s talents now. If I’m hungry, I can polish off one of each shawarma wrap. I like them both nearly equally, though if I were ordering one I’d lean to the lamb and beef; the earthy tarator seeping among the meat and contrasting with the pickles is deeply satisfying.

On weekends Kamal keeps his business — located near the intersection of Hollywood and Vine next to a tattoo studio and a juice bar; Peggy Lee’s Walk of Fame star is right in front — open until 3 a.m. Shawarma isn’t only for the wee hours though. He lifts the gate on the stand at 1 p.m. daily. I’ve been among the first in line lately. The spits have been turning and the shawarma is already crisping.

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Where to celebrate Lunar New Year

Festivities to celebrate the Lunar New Year — ushering in the Year of the Water Rabbit for most observing cultures; in Vietnam it will be the Year of the Cat — are deep-seated and prolific across Los Angeles. Our wonderful new associate food editor Danielle Dorsey (welcome, Danielle!) has compiled a guide with 16 suggestions to mark the occasion, from themed dinners at Kato to limited-series chocolates at Valerie’s Confections. I will be feasting on poon choi with friends.

Collage of various Lunar New Year foods
(Brandon Ly / Los Angeles Times)

— For the season finale of her Bucket List series, Jenn Harris joins forces with chef Shirley Chung, writer Andy Wang and culinary consultant and event coordinator Caryl Chinn to dine on Chung’s jumbo cheeseburger potstickers and ask a larger question: What is a dumpling?

— Jenn also weighs in on the L.A. locations of two recent and lauded imports — Willie Mae’s Scotch House fried chicken from New Orleans and Holey Grail Donuts from Hawaii — and reports on the sudden closing announcement of modern sandwich icon Konbi in Echo Park and Culver City.

— Another disheartening closure: Esther Tseng writes about the final days of Genever, the Filipina-owned, gin-focused cocktail bar in Historic Filipinotown, which will serve its last drinks on January 25.

fried chicken at Willie Mae's
A family meal-sized plate of fried chicken at the new Santa Monica location of the legendary New Orleans restaurant, Willie Mae’s.
(Shelby Moore / For The Times)