Street food is a subtle and often underappreciated art form. There are few meals more satisfying than ones involving cooked meat wrapped in a baked or fried container of dough, heavily seasoned, and drowned in some manner of sauce. Here in Texas we tend to think of street food in terms of tacos, burgers, maybe a banh mi or a Cuban sandwich.
But street food is universal, and some of the best comes from both the Middle East and the Mediterranean. In the Arabic world, bustling markets fill with the savory aroma of slow-roasted lamb and baking bread, while vendors fill endless orders of shawarma and kabob. In Greece, gyro stands take the place of taco trucks and burger joints for easy grab-and-go meals.
This city is well known for its global culinary offerings. While the setting may not be as picturesque, authentic Arabic, Greek, and Lebanese food is plentiful if one knows where to look. Much has been written about the neighborhood standards. places like Istanbul Grill. Mary'z, Fadi's; respected eateries that have graced the digital pages of the local food publications for their yelp worthy menus and Instagramable ambiance.
But what about the street food? What about the dives, the gas station shawarma, the food truck baklava? Houstonians may not be familiar with the absolute satisfaction of a late-night bodega meal, but we know a good taco truck when we see it.
This list will highlight some of the city's best and most low-key Middle Eastern and Mediterranean street food vendors. Food warriors that battle the summer heat and stand next to hot ovens and spit roasts, making kabob and shawarmas in kitchens the size of walk-in closets.
Shawarma Stop is on the outskirts of the Medical Center, on Almeda Road just a stone's throw away from Highway 288. This obscure Middle Eastern kitchen is as low-key as it gets. Nestled into the back of a gas station is a brightly lit service counter with a surprisingly long menu. Save yourself the chore of reading through it and simply order the beef or chicken "sandwich," aka shawarma.
It's not in their name for nothing; these guys make a proper shawarma. The pita is rolled tight, holding in all that tender meat, pickles, and garlic sauce so you don't spill while changing lanes on your way back to work. The pita bread is just a little crispy on the edges, avoiding the common shawarma mistake of being too much like a Chipotle burrito. Everything is made fresh in house to order. No gas station hot dogs under a warming lamp. And forget about snagging a Snickers bar on your way out. Turn around and grab a homemade baklava for the road — it's an absolute must.
Gyro King - Med Center
Ahh, the food truck. Long a culinary respite for crews of exhausted and cash-poor construction crews. Now a global food trend for white collar adventurers and late night bar hoppers. Houston is a commuter city. We like our roads and our cars, so naturally food trucks fit right into that lifestyle. With all the trendy trucks serving overpriced truffle fries and quail egg pizza to Montrose hipsters, it's easy to look past the OGs, the trucks that have been parked in the same lot for years pumping out greasy goodness to their neighborhood patrons. Gyro King is a diamond in the rough, just over a mile south of the aforementioned Shawarma Stop on Almeda Road.
These guys are the real kings of Houston gyro joints. Theirs is a spicier variety than most, with the traditional tzatziki sauce bolstered by the addition of a potent hot sauce. Also well known for their fresh fruit juice blends, Gyro King makes all their juices to order in minutes. This is a quick and affordable Mediterranean lunch that will break you out of that Subway and Chick-Fil-A funk you've been in recently.
Abu Omar Halal - Various Locations
If Gyro King is an obscure food truck find, Abu Omar Halal is a food truck empire. With eight locations spread all over town, this halal food stand is the first of its kind in the Bayou City. Originally serving halal tacos, they shut down in 2015 and reopened as a shawarma and kabob stand after realizing the traditional fare was seriously outselling the tacos.
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They say it's all in the details, and at Abu Omar the same goes for the shawarmas. It's the pickles that make this halal sandwich of marook bread and seasoned meat truly shine. Perhaps homemade, perhaps procured from some local halal grocer, the pickle's tangy crunch in this heavily seasoned and sauce-forward wrap is the quiet detail that pushes it over the edge from good to great.
Shawarma King - Galleria
Of course, sometimes a food truck or a gas station isn't going to cut it. Maybe you're on a lunch date, maybe you're with your boss. Maybe you find yourself in that brief six-month period where Houstonians only go outside under the most dire of circumstances. Whatever the case, it's always a good idea to have a sit-down option tucked away in your back pocket. The lone brick and mortar restaurant on this list, Shawarma King, is Houston's original shawarma of choice. For decades this little hole in the wall on Hillcroft and Richmond has been a go-to for Houston's Middle Eastern residents and in-the-know foodies looking for a little exotic authenticity in their day to day.
Though primarily known for their outstanding and traditional shawarma (dual spit roasts turn towers of chicken and beef all day long), Shawarma King offers an extensive menu, including kafta kabob, lamb shanks, half chicken plate, and baklava baked fresh daily, make this an institution worth revisiting.