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Igor is dousing his gyro wrap with a bright red salsa that tastes like a combination of roasted red peppers and cayenne powder. He has made himself a massive rolled sandwich with the gyro slices and thick Arab-style flatbread, but his plate is still overloaded with a mountain of meat, with a big pile of french fries underneath. The gyros are all ground beef instead of the Greek-style combo of ground beef and lamb, but nobody's complaining. It's an awful lot of food for five bucks.
"This hot sauce tastes just like the adzhika you put on your kabobs in Uzbekistan," Igor says.
But this isn't Uzbekistan. It's Al's Quick Stop (or Qwik Stop, depending on which of the store's signs you're reading), a convenience store next to Rudyard's Pub on Waugh. Al's serves an odd combination of Middle Eastern and Mexican foods. An illuminated menu displayed on the wall features gyro sandwiches, chicken shawarma and falafel, as well as enchiladas, tortas (sandwiches) and a wide range of tacos. You can't trust the menu, though. I noticed breakfast tacos up there, so I stopped by one morning to try them.
Houston, TX 77006
"We don't start serving food until 11," the guy behind the counter told me.
"But what about the breakfast tacos?" I asked, pointing to the menu.
"We only serve lunch," he deadpanned. The next time I crave a breakfast taco for lunch, I'll know where to go. Okay, so the kitchen has a few bugs to work out; they've been serving food at Al's for about a year now, and they're still getting the hang of it.
On a good day, the food is amazing.
But today is Monday, and the taco meats on the steam table look like last week's leftovers. I get tacos made with overdone roast pork, which tastes okay but is totally black on the outside. The Mexican-style tacos are made by pouring a little oil on the griddle, frying two tortillas together until they become flexible but not crunchy, dressing them with lettuce and tomato, and serving them with guacamole and hot sauce in little plastic cups. Igor says the pork's too dry.
I also try beef in green sauce and find it overcooked but pleasant. On previous occasions, when the meat was a little fresher, the tacos were terrific. Beef in green sauce, fajitas, chicken fajitas, roast pork, barbacoa and pork in red sauce are the taco stuffings usually found on the steam table. I had a barbacoa torta here one time that was incredibly tasty, but it was so mushy I had to eat it with a knife and fork. But there's no barbacoa today either. I make a mental note not to eat at Al's on Mondays anymore.
Whenever I visit, I always order french fries. Made from fresh potatoes with the peel left on, they're lightly coated with flour and spices before being deep-fried. They come to the table hot and greaseless, and I've yet to get a limp one.
The falafel sandwich here is the best I've ever had. The vegetable patties, which are as grease-free as the french fries, are squished onto the bread and liberally dressed with tomatoes, yogurt sauce, pickles and pickled turnip tidbits that have been dyed bright purple with beet juice. The whole meal is then wrapped up tight in the flatbread, covered in a sheet of paper and cut in half. The crunchy falafel is beautifully surrounded by moist, salty condiments and yogurt sauce. The sandwich comes with a mound of hummus and some crisp, toasted Arab bread.
I promised to bring one of these fabulous falafel roll-ups to somebody back at the office later in the day. But Al's is out of the Arab bread chips. The Mexican lady behind the counter asks me if it would be okay to substitute freshly fried tortilla chips. I tell her that's fine, as long as she throws in a couple of little containers of salsa and guacamole.
My officemate is happy to douse her falafel sandwich with salsa. She's also pleasantly surprised when she dips her chips in the hummus and savors the similarity between puréed chickpeas and refried beans. I made the same connection standing at the counter of Al's Quick Stop and looking at the two bean mashes sitting side by side.
But the even juicier juxtaposition can be observed when both of the vertical rotisseries are going, one roasting gyro meat and the other cooking seasoned pork for Mexican tacos al pastor. The two meat preparations are very similar, but I've never seen them both in the same place before.
The meat cone known as a gyro, or doner kabob, is made of finely ground meat that's mixed with spices and a binder, such as beaten eggs. The cone is then compressed so it won't fall apart while it revolves on the stainless-steel roaster. The cooked meat is then sliced away in long strips. A shawarma is similar, but instead of ground meat, it's made of layers of little pieces that come apart when you slice them. At Al's they have chicken shawarma.
While it seems odd to see shawarmas and tacos together on the same menu, they're actually related. There's a huge Lebanese community in Mexico. The immigrants brought their vertical rotisseries with them to make kabobs in the New World. Several Mexican dishes borrowed the Lebanese technology.
Tacos al pastor, which means "shepherd's-style tacos," are made from a cone of thinly sliced pork, which has been marinated in achiote and stacked on a vertical roaster with a big chunk of pineapple on top. The pork slices revolve in front of the heating element and get shaved off as the outside gets done, just like a shawarma. The meat is usually crisped on the griddle before being served on lightly fried corn tortillas. There is another variation that's popular in Puebla called tacos arabes (Arab tacos). The meat is the same, but it's served on what looks like a cross between a flour tortilla and Arab flatbread.
The tacos al pastor at Al's Quick Stop are available on either corn or flour tortillas. I think next time I'll ask for them on the flatbread with the pickled turnips and yogurt sauce, and call them tacos arabes.
Al's is also one of the few places in town that has fresh manteca (lard) for sale. If you're trying to make tamales, refried beans or Mexican cookies, fresh lard is a blessing. The lard sold in tubs at the grocery store not only contains trans fats, it's also tasteless. While healthy lard may sound like a misnomer, it is in fact much sought after by cooks. Igor grabs a tub on the way out. His favorite Hungarian goulash recipe calls for it, he says.
I joke with Igor on the way to the register about the fact that the only place I can find rendered pig fat in Houston is a convenience store run by a Muslim Palestinian.
"Is this halal lard?" I tease Al as we settle the tab.
"Hey, this is America," Al says with a grin and an upraised palm. "You gotta make a living. I sell beer, too."