This secret menu item combines pillowy pita with flavourful sausage — and lots of garlic mayo
It's About Thyme is located at 95 Geneva St. in St. Catharines
While researching for this column, I am lucky to have enjoyed many great meals all over the Golden Horseshoe in the last year. One of the most memorable plates of 2019 came from a small, nondescript takeout spot in St. Catharines.
I say nondescript because the name of the restaurant is "It's About Thyme" and the font size is so tiny on the restaurant's sign that you could easily miss it as you drive by.
Also, the best dish on the menu is not even listed.
"The name is indicative of my journey into the restaurant business; my desire to continue my family legacy of running restaurants since the mid 60s," owner Sam Salame said.
Salame's parents owned nearly a dozen restaurants throughout Lebanon. They lost it all "overnight," Salame says, because of the civil war.
They moved to St. Catharines in 1990.
"I don't know how we got here, but there was a sense of community, so we opened a restaurant right away," he said.
Salame's father opened the doors of what they say was the city's first Lebanese restaurant, Samara, in 1990, but it eventually closed.
"It's tough to run a restaurant here," Salame said. "I was a hair stylist for many years."
Then, nearly five years ago, Salame switched industries and decided to open a restaurant on Geneva Street.
"We're not really downtown, but people find us. They become loyal very quickly."
There are a few stools at the restaurant, but most of Salame's cooking is designed for takeout. The menu at first glance covers the quintessential Middle Eastern classics.
The falafel, for instance, is very popular amongst locals. Salame uses his parent's recipe: a mixture of chickpeas, onion, garlic, parsley and cumin fried to order.
"But everything has a twist," Salame says of the classics. "There are twists and turns everywhere!"
When a restaurant boasts a sign outside that reads "Best falafel in town," you expect to see a large vertical broiler in the kitchen. But there isn't one here — no standing rotisserie in sight.
When a customer asked, Salame's response was immediate: "It's because we make everything to order. That way I can make sure you get exactly the best tasting meat."
In my opinion, shawarma is best when you receive a plate of meat that is juicy and flavourful and has a thin roasted crust from the motorized spit. But in most cases, it's hard to time when the outer shell has been roasted to perfection in a busy restaurant, so you usually end up with a serving of just the juicy bits.
Salame chooses to cook his pre-marinated meat on the grill to get the desired texture instead. He also makes his own bread, so the shawarma and the falafel are best in his homemade pita — my preferred way to eat the shawarma here — loaded with pickled vegetables and a generous slathering of his house garlic sauce.
Salame swears that the garlic sauce is the key.
But here's the big secret about this place. About a year ago, Salame was experimenting in the kitchen when he came up with the pocket, a sandwich that has become wildly popular since.
"I make my own sujuk [sausage] in house," he began.
Sujuk is a type of beef sausage that comes in a variety of forms in the Middle East and Central Asia. Sometimes it is luxuriously fatty and sliced thick, and other times it resembles a spreadable chorizo.
"The recipe, as you can imagine, changes from town to town," Salame said. "All I can say is mine is the classic, but I amplify the amount of garlic, hot peppers and paprika."
A common way of eating sujuk at Lebanese restaurants in the GTA is on flatbread (manakeesh) with Lebanese cheese.
"I really wanted to experiment with this, and what I landed is what I call the pocket. And yes, it's a secret menu item."
Salame stuffs pillowy pitas with sujuk, cheese, pickles, tomatoes and a healthy coating of garlic sauce. He then brushes the outside with a secret oil before toasting it on the grill for a few seconds.
"It doesn't look like anything, but wait until you bite into it."
There's an orange sheen on the shell from the oil and a thin crust on the outside of the sandwich. As you bite into it, you're greeted with waves of salty and sour notes from the pickles, spurts of acid from the tomato and the flavouring of spice from the meat.
It's all brought together by the garlic mayo that coats every corner of your mouth.