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Everything You Could Ever Know About Kebab, and Where to Find Different Varieties in San Antonio


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Most street food is a microcosmic accident of globalization. If you got it from a stall and can hold it in your hand, it was probably made by a wave of immigrants who picked up spices on the trail that lead them there.

Nothing embodies this quite like kebab. Two paths, east and west, merge into the kebab options available here in San Antonio.

What is a kebab? Does it always have some sort of pole in it? Or is it the thing that's more like gyro? Or is it shawarma? The answer tends to be yes to everything, but let's use some categories to make our lives easier. When people say kebab, they are probably referring to either shish kebab or doner kebab.

The history of shish kebab, which is skewered meat roasted on a grill, can be tracked from the Mediterranean east along the Silk Road through Russia, Pakistan and India. It became satay, a mainstay of Thai cuisine. Yakitori is the Japanese riff. Shish kebab travels well and prepares easily. In America, nothing says "dad's night to cook" like slapping onto a grill a stick of anonymous beef chunks, bell peppers and onions.

Most shish kebab is some combination of lamb, beef or chicken. Sometimes it is in whole chunks. Sometimes it is ground and then shaped.

The spices are what signify global region. If we are having kebab that is flavored with coconut milk, we are thinking about Thailand. If we are flavoring with cardamom, allspice and coriander, northern India is a good bet. Vinegar marinade suggests a Russian influence. The Mediterranean heart of kebab gives us mint, aleppo pepper and oregano in various combinations.

The San Antonio array of shish kebab gives you the full global picture:

Pasha serves both ground beef and chicken kebabs. The beef is called koobideh and involves Persian spices. One chicken kebab has a saffron hue to it, and the other has a classic Sheesh Tawook garlic base.

Shisha Cafe offers both beef and lamb shish kebab on the grill. There are extensive hookah options as well.

Dimassi's has a buffet and does chicken and beef kebabs.

Turquoise Grill does lamb, chicken, and a mixture of lamb and beef called Adana Kebab. They also do Kofte Kebab, which is ground beef and lamb.

Cedar Mediterranean Grill makes beef kebab and a medley of chicken, lamb and beef.

The Souvlaki Platter at Mina and Dimi's Greek House includes beef, pork and chicken.

Jerusalem Grill spells it "Kafta Kebab," which is pure ground beef. Also chicken.

If shish kebab history moves east, doner kebab history moves west toward the sandwich-loving peoples. Doner kebab is also technically meat on a stick, but it is sliced, piled vertically and rotated until the outermost layer has taken on some color and crispiness. This layer is shaved off and then wrapped in some sort of flatbread. So, a gyro right? Shawarma right? The technique is common across all three things.

Again, it's the spice blend and the toppings that indicate what country of origin probably is. Tomatoes, cucumbers and onions are typical in all, but anything pickled is fair game. Tahini means you're likely eating gyro or shawarma. Feta and yogurt signal gyro. If the thing's got french fries in it, it's late and you're drunk. Lamb and beef is Mediterranean, and for religious reasons you won't find veal and pork in the Middle East.

Doner kebab is probably older than both shawarma and gyros. German scholars (yes, kebab scholars) date the term for the technique back to the 19th century Ottoman empire.

Odds are, if you are eating doner, you are eating it in Europe cooked by Turkish immigrants, who brought it to Germany in the early 1970s. Germans alone eat $3.5 billion worth of kebab every year. That's 100,000 tons of meat annually. Around the same time gyros became popular in Athens and then Chicago, and Lebanese immigrants brought the technique to Mexico, where it became al pastor.

The big reveal is that all of these varieties are thrown together in San Antonio. All of the shish kebab restaurants do a version of doner as well. The terms have been gloriously mushed together all over the Northwest Side.

At Pasha you can get a gyro-kebab, which is categorized as a "naan'which." They also do shawarma and will even wrap up shish kebab meat doner style. Fusion upon fusion.

Doner Kebab Cafe just opened up near UTSA. They offer shawarma separately from doner. They also have Jojeh (a Persian term that usually denotes a saffron element) and Koobideh (ground meat with parsley). Also waffles for some reason.

Shisha Cafe has a gyro sandwich, a tikka kebab and a shisha burger.

Dimassi's prefers the "gyro" designation.

Turquoise Grill is one of the rare places that goes with "doner" verbiage. They have beef doner and Iskender, which is usually all lamb.

Cedar has both shawarma and gyro, so get one of each and then you can explain the difference.

That same experiment can be conducted at Jerusalem Grill.

Finally, you can get a platter of both shish and doner meat at Mina and Dimi's. It is called the "Hercules Platter." Good luck.

So many restaurants, so little time. Find out the latest San Antonio dining news with our Flavor Friday Newsletter.

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