Along the back wall of Ruzana’s narrow open kitchen, pillars of shawarma turn on their standing rotisseries in slow motion, twisting around bulkily like linebackers in perpetual instant replay. One is formed from thin slips of marinated chicken fused by the heat, and another from a similarly hulking mass of beef and lamb stacked in alternating layers. Rotating in spit-roasted sync, they fill the air with the aroma of browned meat and burnt spices. These vertical spits are a common sight all over town (Mexico’s tacos al pastor and árabes rely on them, too), but especially here in Bay Ridge, a neighborhood abundant with Turkish doner kebabs, Greek gyros, and all manner of restaurants, bakeries, and specialty food shops representing the cuisines of Palestine, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt.
There’s nothing particularly innovative or surprising about the method for cooking shawarma at this seven-month-old canteen from Jordanian expats Khadija Abdel-Fattah and brothers Mutassim (who manages) and Mohammad (the chef) Ayasrah, but it’s still a pleasure to witness, empty-stomached, while awaiting your order. A familiar site the world over, tracing its roots to Ottoman Turkey, the real differences are in the marinades, spices, breads, and condiments. Ruzana’s cooks work their way around the shawarma monoliths from top to bottom with long, skinny blades, nonchalantly hacking off jagged hunks and slivers that emerge from the orange glow of the electric grill burnished and sizzling, weeping rendered fat and jus. The end product is irrefutably tasty, the beef and lamb suggesting cumin and cinnamon, the chicken an exemplary juxtaposition of crispy exterior bits and shreds of white meat that haven’t lost their tenderness.
You can get either kind heaped over sunset-tinted turmeric rice ($12.50) or stuffed inside airy pitas ($8.50), but they’re most compelling when bound up tightly in thin, chewy shrak ($12.50), a char-speckled Bedouin flatbread that Mohammad cooks on a domed griddle called a saj, which turns the draped expanses of dough from sheer to opaque in a matter of seconds. Featuring meat inlaid with intensely sour chopped pickles and enough liberal squeezes of the garlicky aioli-like condiment called toum to make you take notice, the weighty wraps have the shape and droop of a folded hand towel. They’re thrown onto the flat-top for a final crisping before getting cleaved into about six or seven hefty sections. Landing with a thud on the table, one easily feeds two to three people. It’s one of the finest things I’ve eaten this year.
Despite the fact that Levantine cooking continues to enjoy a citywide surge — one that’s netted us haute takes on gefilte fish, Iraqi dumpling soups, and many a fast-casual falafel — Jordanian food remains woefully rare in the five boroughs. Ruzana’s shawarma could change that, though it might catch on sooner if Mohammad offered a broader range, like the specials — including mansaf, Jordan’s national dish of bone-in lamb cooked in yogurt and topped with nuts — that were available during Ramadan. Not that the customers seem to mind: The place sees a steady stream of business throughout the day, from local worker bees whiling away their lunch breaks over pizza-like manakeesh bread ($1.75) topped with melted mint-flecked cheese or the spice blend zaatar, to groups of teenagers on weekend nights dunking football-shaped kibbeh ($1.75 each), mounds of fried bulgur wheat encasing ground beef, in creamy tahini. And while the shawarma reigns supreme, pepper-dusted whole roast chickens ($12.50) are another worthy offering, their skin crackled and ruddy, the meat juicy within.
Although many folks grab and go, it’s worth sticking around for Mutassim’s warm hospitality and the surroundings, which might be best described as one big charmingly homespun set piece, complete with pressed-tin ceilings, stained-glass lanterns, and ornamental coffee urns hanging from the walls. Best of all is the faux exterior of an “authentic Middle Eastern home,” thatched roof and all, that greets diners on arrival. It’s a lovely backdrop for a table full of mezze, like minty mounds of tabbouleh salad ($4.50, large $9.50), rice-stuffed grape leaves ($5) lent tart sweetness from the addition of tomato, and golden-brown hand pies ($2.50) filled with soft, citrus-scented spinach. Any of them would make a decent appetizer, though you’d be remiss not to order any of the dips ($5), like dense labne yogurt and nicely smoky baba ghanoush, which come with a basket of flatbread. Two standouts among these: qudsia, a chunky mix of hummus, crushed fava beans, and tahini; and fatteh, a dip of yogurt mixed with strips of flatbread and extra-aromatic chopped pine nuts for texture.
When available, both varieties of fried dough soaked in sugar syrup — luqmat qadi and tulumba ($1 for four) — are an indulgent way to end a meal here, alongside a cup of Ruzana’s Turkish coffee. Otherwise, consider saving room for Mohammad’s nut-and-raisin-studded puddings ($2.50), including the flan-like mahalabia, and a creamier, silkier rice pudding. Stacked for takeout in a fridge next to the kitchen, they don’t look like much, but both marry rich sweet cream with the floral sweetness of rose and orange blossom waters. They’re as subtle as the shawarma is unabashedly bold.
486 85th Street
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 19, 2017