The chicken shawarma that turns to a roasty crisp every Friday on a spit at the Al Amana Grocery may be the best I’ve had in Philadelphia in recent memory. But first you’ll have to find it. This little grocery store and grill is tucked behind the Al Aqsua mosque on Germantown Avenue in Kensington, where it’s been for nearly 25 years. But even once you figure out that its entrance is off tiny North Cadwallader Street at the rear of the mosque, you still need to pass through the gate of the school playground that sits beside its nondescript entrance. Inside, a tightly packed room of market shelves stocking everything from huge 2.75-liter jugs of Nablus olive oil (a bargain at $17.99) to fresh ripe figs and jars of jallab date juice crowds two little booths in the front for limited eat-in seating. Most of the food here is purchased to go.
But as hidden gems go, Al Amana is up there with the best, not simply for its obscure location, but for the vivid flavors and stellar values that the Palestinian Dabbour family has brought to the grill since they arrived in Philly 35 years ago from Syria, where they’d settled after their city, Safad, was partitioned into Northern Israel. The food overseen by chef Amer Dabbour and wife, Dalal, and their son, Anas, is classical Middle Eastern fare, but cooked with homey care and a soulful touch. The falafel is herbaceous, but most notable for its fluffy center. A baked lamb platter, an incredible deal at $9.50 brings tender meat still clinging rustically to its halal bones, its gravy permeated with cinnamon and bay, over rice with hearty carrots and potatoes.
My favorite item here is the chicken shawarma that turns on a vertical spit, its layers of both thigh and breast meat deeply marinated in cumin-y turmeric spice and tangy lemon, then stacked into a perfect cone for even roasting that crackles at the edges. With an added spark of the fiery house hot sauce, a fuse is lit, and it takes yet another step up the flavor-meter. For $5.50? Yes, please. For now, Anas says, the shawarma is only spit-roasted on Fridays, though it’s available all week long finished on the grill. If more shawarma fans finally begin to find Al Amana during the mid-week, however, Anas says that could change.
– Craig LaBan