Crunch, smoke, tenderness: This Iraqi-inspired charcoal chicken spot will make your mouth water
Rony's is located at 312 Grays Rd. in Hamilton
There's something admirable about owner Rony Shamoun's insistence on perfection at his restaurant, Rony's.
It isn't obvious when you step into his sleek counter-service operation in the east end of Hamilton. But spend a few minutes talking to him and the obsession and attention to detail is palpable.
"I'm a kid from Baghdad. We moved to Canada in the 90s for a better life like many other families during the first Iraq war," Shamoun said on one particular visit as he was showing me around the kitchen.
Shamoun is Iraqi, his cuisine clearly Iraqi-influenced, reminiscent of restaurants you'd encounter in Baghdad where cooking meat over charcoal is a "way of life." Meat is fired over a pit, served with flavourful rice and an assortment of sides.
But Shamoun prefers not to call his eatery an Iraqi restaurant, because he doesn't consider it traditional.
Shamoun grew up in Hamilton. Rony's is a byproduct of his exposure to his surroundings. "I don't even think it's fusion. It's the natural progression of things when immigrants come here and raise their kids. They're going to try and sample different cuisines in their cooking."
My first visit to Rony's was after I was told about a guy in Stoneycreek who specialized in slow charcoal-cooked chicken.
It's part technique and also studying how the heat flows as you move the coals around, and the way the juices move.- Rony Shamoun
The chicken is some of the best you'll have.
On that first visit, I followed directions and had it in a wrap, thick cuts of chicken perfumed with smoke, crunchy skin followed by an unbelievably tender centre.
There was also this creamy taste to the chicken, which I presumed was from the long marinade. There was a myriad of sauces in the wrap, a tangy yogurt sauce and an orange sauce with bright notes of scotch bonnet peppers.
Lunch hit the spot and Rony's became a regular stop for me when in the Hamilton area.
As unassuming as the sign, menu and décor might be, there's so much to appreciate in the details.
One of the first things you'll notice when you enter the dining room is the large cone-shaped device sitting in a corner.
"It's a fermenter like the ones craft breweries use. I bought it because I wanted to make our yogurt in-house," Shamoun said.
The influences are subtle, from ingredients in his sauces to flavourings he uses in the marinade for his chicken or rice.
"Back home, they would cook lamb this way. That is the traditional form. We cook chicken, I prefer chicken. That is what I'm trying to perfect, and there are also a lot of influences from my upbringing in Hamilton. If I called this an Iraqi restaurant, that would confuse people from Iraq."
But even if it isn't strictly traditional, there is a dish on the menu that clearly points to Shamoun's Iraqi roots: the falafel plate.
The fried chickpea fritter is best enjoyed on a plate with a bed of biryani rice, which Shamoun makes following his mother's recipe.
The biryani alone is worth the drive and a worthwhile choice if you're vegetarian. Cooked with a plethora of spices, it's subtle compared to its Pakistani and Indian counterparts. The dish is completed with a generous drizzle of amba sauce. Amba is a tangy sauce made with ripe mango and an assortment of spices.
"You cannot have falafel in Iraq or Israel without amba sauce," Shamoun said.
The main show, though, is the charcoal chicken, a unique dish that you won't find anywhere else in the GTA. After tinkering with store-bought yogurts for his chicken marinade, he decided to make his own in house.
"I'm searching for a really tangy and sharp product, which complements the chicken and the other sauces we use to finish the dishes."
The process takes him three days, from cooking the milk, culturing it and letting the yogurt set. It's then strained.
"We use it in the marinade but we also make two sauces with it. Mild and spicy plates."
After sitting in a secret marinade, the chicken is skewered on long flat blades and slowly roasted rotisserie-style over the coals.
"We take our time with this, constantly turning the product. It's part technique and also studying how the heat flows as you move the coals around, and the way the juices move," he said.
It's hard for me to choose between the two popular orders: wrap or plate. They're both different, the wrap is like a crash course in Shamoun's cooking, you're hit with notes of smoke, the cream and crunch in the chicken, followed by the gush of thick sauces.
I enjoy the plate version because of the rice, the gentle rub of spices that are accented by the grilled chicken and the piquant from the yogurt sauces.
It's reminiscent of something my mom would make but not. Same-same, but different.