A $3.50 side of made-from-scratch falafel
When you walk into Simsim Outstanding Shawarma, it’s clear that a lot of thought has gone into the fast casual Mediterranean spot. From detailed interior design elements to the placement of aspirational slogans like, “stand out from the crowd,” and “hummus is our guac,” the counter service eatery reads like a place that has undertaken great pains to appear effortless.
7051 Clairemont Mesa Blvd Suite 301, San Diego
Which makes more sense when you consider it’s not meant to be a stand-alone restaurant, but the first in a chain — a second, Carmel Mountain location is in the works. And except for the fact it sits in a Kearny Mesa strip mall rather than a buzzy urban development in East Village, the impression I get is something like the shawarma-shop answer to everybody’s favorite new elevated taco joint, Lola 55.
A chicken shawarma bowl served over brown basmati rice with cucumbe yogurt (moutabel and baba ghanoush added for a dollar each)
But for that comparison to work, Simsim (the Arabic word for sesame) would have to offer a chef-driven menu, providing dishes made using better-than-fast food ingredients, and made from scratch. Enter co-founder and executive chef Ibrahim Alsharief, a Jordanian chef who comes to San Diego after years cooking for upscale hotel restaurants in Dubai, Bahrain, and Kuwait. He brings a detailed knowledge of traditional Arabic cooking, and a preference for whole spices, ground daily to ensure freshness.
Simsim's fast casual interior design by Bells & Whistles
The rotisserie chicken is halal, raised without hormone or antibiotic additives, and marinated for 24 hours in a blend of 18 spices. The rotisserie meat gets the same treatment with a 7-spice blend, with a combination of certified angus beef and grass-fed lamb. Sauces made from scratch include tahini (sesame paste), garlic, roasted tomato, and cucumber yogurt, while hummus made from sprouted chick peas. Whereas Lola 55 prepares corn tortillas on a flat top comal, at Simsim, flatbreads cook on a small saaj, the dome-shaped grill.
Wraps, plates, and bowls range from 9 to 12 dollars apiece, with optional add-ons including assorted traditional sides. It’s a great opportunity to explore the subtle difference between baba ghanoush and moutabel. Both are hummus-like pastes made from (in this case) fire roasted eggplant. However, according to Alsharief, pureed eggplant mixed with tahini is called moutabel, while baba ghanoush doesn’t necessarily feature the sesame paste. Both are served here, and while the baba ghanoush is peppered with sesame seeds, it notably features diced bell peppers and onions, giving it a greenish cast versus the moutabel’s creamy beige.
Moutabel is my jam, and it’s killer here, as is the tahini on its own (or spicy tahini, if you like a little burn). The falafel, also made from scratch, is dense, grainy, and parsley spiced, and would satisfy in the event I turn vegetarian. However, the meat dishes star here, particularly the beautifully seasoned chicken. Depending whether you order it as a wrap or over a bowl of fragrantly spiced brown basmati rice, the menu defaults to specific sauce pairings, but you can request whichever sauce combinations you prefer (I’m partial to spicy garlic and tahini, but I’m sure I’ll come around to the roasted tomato sauce in time).
I generally enjoy the movement of fast casual concepts in a chef- and ingredient-driven directions, and especially enjoy the recent trend of such restaurants starting out in San Diego. Now that we’re set for tacos and shawarma wraps, I look forward to see what comes next.