Although well-documented on the Flintstones, I imagine the debate over when humans started spit roasting meat is a hotly contested archaeological topic. I'm not aware of any published studies that lean one way or another on the matter, so I'm not sure we'll ever know for sure, but as always television and/ or my vivid imagination are both much more historically fun-- if not factual-- than any archaeological dig.
What I do know without a doubt is that in the Middle East they have been vertically roasting their meats with an open flame for a long time, and their culinary innovation has inspired a world-over of spit-cooked meats including my first love, tacos al pastor. And whenever I get a chance I absolutely love to get in touch with the roots of this marinated Mexican meat and therefore make my way to any number of area Middle Eastern joints.
But let's face it; while we have a number of respectable Middle Eastern restaurants in Denver it is hard to find a truly great one. It is also harder than it should be to come across a worthy shawarma sandwich.
Amira bakery has been slinging shawarma for some time now, but only recently have they moved from the obscurity of southeast Aurora into the part of town that showcases the most Middle Eastern restaurants per capita in our city: Colorado and Evans.
The new location, however more central it may be, is still somewhat obscure. It is located in a lonely East Evans strip mall next to the Park-and-Ride lot in what I think used to be (ironically I might add, depending on your point of view of Middle East politics) the Jerusalem Market.
Whatever the case, Amira is open for business in Denver and that is a very good thing. Being a bakery, they feature all sorts of Middle Eastern sweets, most of which are unknown to me. I did end up sampling a piece of Baklava while I waited for my tab to be counted up, and it was good, but I was not here to satiate my sweet tooth, but rather chow down on some spit roasted meat.
Another reason I had very little taste for anything sweet by the end of the meal is because I decided it would be fun to try the English-made super-sweet soda that has apparently become very popular all over the Middle East: Vimto. Purportedly there are some raspberries and currants in there but it is all overwhelmed by the intense, sugary syrup that dominates the drink. Still, I was thirsty so I drank it, but every lip-puckering sip was unbelievably sweet that I think it even out-does its Venezuelan bubble-gum counterpart, Frescolita.
But of course I was not there to taste the carbonated fruit beverages either. No, my eyes and stomach were set on the vertically roasting spits of meat that sat just behind the back wall of the counter. My pictures of the spits all came out poorly thanks to a slowly dying camera with a lens that only partially opens at times. Here is a "Where's Waldo?" picture of the beef spit, delicately framed in the faux-stone arch in the sparsely decorated bakery.
"Where's the Spit?" is much more fun than finding Waldo
What I did get pictures of is the all-important end-product: a freshly baked thin tortilla-like pita surrounding charred chunks of beautifully cooked beef and chicken. In it as well were copious amounts of chopped fresh parsley, tomatoes, a pair of pickles and a thin but flavorful tahini sauce.
The beef was excellent: well-charred, relatively tender and not at all dry. I have never had a shawarma with such a tortilla-like pita, but I liked the taco-like feel of the sandwich and can see the direct influence of the Middle East on such dishes as the Pueblan taco arabe.
I rarely say this about restaurants but here it comes: the chicken was better than the beef. The chicken had even more char-flavor than the beef and was particularly juicy that day. It was absolutely the best shawarma I have had in the Denver-area.
Although the Shawarma will not disappoint, my favorite dish of the day was the Lebanese pizza. I ordered a Lambahjeen pizza (with cheese) to go: a mix of ground lamb, tomatoes, onions and a sweet-savory spice mix (think Allspice, cloves, cinnamon and black pepper among others). I watched as they quickly fired this traditional Lebanese delight in their open-flame oven. As is the case with most of my to-go food, it smelled and looked so good that I couldn't bear to wait until later. I ate most of it right there in the parking lot.
The dough was fantastic and would make any Italian pizza traditionalist think twice about the perfect slice. It was thin and crispy but not dry-- and had that subtle yeasty undertone yet was strong with the aromas and flavors of the Middle Eastern spices.
Amira Bakery is a standout in the cluttered Denver's Middle Eastern restaurant world surrounding Colorado and Evans. From the spit-roasted shawarma to the unique, carefully prepared pizza and, of course, the dozens of freshly baked sweets that I didn't even have time or room for, Amira Bakery is a must-visit for anyone searching for a great Middle Eastern meal in this town.