Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Turkish delight

Pembina takeout offers some of the best donairs, shawarmas around

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This was originally a pizza outlet, and the present owners found it easier to keep part of the name. If it were up to me I'd change it to the Best Donair & Shawarma, which would be more accurate -- if they aren't the best in town (there may be some I haven't yet found) they are certainly among the best.

Although they are intended primarily for takeout you can, if you wish, eat them on the spot, but it will be at one of two little tables or four stools along the window, in a utilitarian hole in the wall, and you'll be eating them with plastic utensils from takeout containers. On the other hand, they will be freshly cut from the roasts, hot, and at their succulent best.

I had my first donair in Istanbul, where it was called doner kebab, and I've been looking for one to equal it ever since. Without success, unsurprisingly, since so many local donairs are commercially prepared roasts imported from faraway places. But although these owners are generically Middle Eastern (they hail from different countries, at different times), the donair I had at Best Pizza and Donair came closest to my Istanbul ideal. For one reason, because (according to the server) it's made in Turkish fashion; for another, because it is made from scratch with fresh meats.

The beef slices (halal, like all the meats here) are blended with a few slices of lamb for added flavour, and marinated overnight in a complex mix of spices. They are then constructed into a long loaf and speared by a spit, which rotates slowly in a vertical rotisserie. As the outside of the loaf becomes done, thin, crisp slices are carved from the surface, and served in two different ways.

They are either piled into a pita ($7.99), or onto a platter ($11.50). I chose the platter because it comes with two outstanding sides ($11.50) -- the creamy, smooth hummus and a wonderfully refreshing tabouli salad of bulgur wheat grains mixed with finely chopped tomatoes, onions, and bright green mint and parsley (both are also sold la carte in eight-ounce containers, at $3.50 and $5 respectively).

Also included are a crisp lettuce salad, nice rice and two wedges of pita, as well as a sweet white sauce that is based on evaporated milk (a popular concoction in Eastern Canada, I was told), which many like but is too sweet for my taste. I prefer the potent but smooth garlic sauce (more of a paste, actually), and if you have any doubts ask for the sauces on the side.

The pitas are pliant and puffy, but sturdy enough to hold the fillings without falling apart (these are the least messy shawarmas I've found). When the donair is tucked into a pita it is still called a donair and is fleshed out with lettuce, onions, tomatoes and that sweet white sauce. When filled with chicken it is called a shawarma, which is how I tried it.

The chicken is cooked in similar fashion -- the marinated slices stacked and roasted on a rotating spit, yielding chunks of tender, juicy and superbly flavourful chicken, with citrusy undertones. In the pita it's augmented by the usual suspects, but with garlic sauce instead of white sauce, and with the addition of some colourful pickles -- pink turnip and green wild cucumber. ($7.99). When served on a platter it includes the same sides as the donair, plus the garlic sauce and pickles ($11.50). Not only is it delicious, it is also one of the most generous I've ever had, packed with almost enough chicken for two shawarmas.

Another delicious meat is the kebab of freshly ground lamb, which is butchered and cut to the restaurant's specifications, mixed with a little beef for flavour, and seasoned with onion and hints of cilantro ($8.99 in a pita, or $12 for a two-kebab platter). The chickpea falafel are small, dense and slightly dry, but so nicely spiced they perk up in a pita, where they are moistened with tahini, the salad veggies and those colourful pickles ($6.99 in a pita, $9.99 on a platter, or 50 cents each la carte).

There are pizzas, of course, among them the Donair Pizza, which (in the picture on the menu) looks loaded with meat, tomatoes, onions, feta and sweet sauce ($21 large, $27 extra large). I opted for a single topping pizza -- an ultra thin crust spread lightly with cheese and ground beef (the smallest size is 12 inches for $11.99). I found it flavourful, but it may not satisfy those who like a thicker topping. The same is true of some of the tasty Middle Eastern pies -- thin crusts topped by thin coatings of ground beef, spinach, haloom cheese or a sprinkle of mixed spices ($4 to $5).

The service is friendly and helpful, but during meal times there may be lineups at the order counter. Phoning ahead for a pickup order is probably a good idea. Hours are from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. weekdays, to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday, and from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 11, 2013 C5


Updated on Thursday, April 11, 2013 at 8:20 AM CDT: replaces photo, adds fact box

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