Hamilton's got a ton of shawarma joints but only this one is 'universally recommended'
One of the most exciting cities to eat through in Ontario right now is undoubtedly Hamilton. The city is in the midst of a renaissance with equal parts art and culinary.
In the early 2010s, the city started to see a surge in art-related events, most notably with Supercrawl leading the charge by promoting local artists. The festival — along with the food truck boom in 2013 — established James Street North as the epicentre for this interest in food and culture.
The Hamilton Farmers' Market is also located nearby and for the last five years, it has been the stomping ground for food pop-ups, which have since evolved into brick and mortar establishments.
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Today, James Street North and its surrounding streets present an exciting food crawl of different cuisine and influences. And the city's beer scene alone has evolved by leaps and bounds. There are even a few Toronto chefs and cooks who have moved to Hamilton due to the rise in Toronto's real estate and operating costs.
When I speak to locals and ask them what the food was like prior to this boom, the answers vary. Most of my friends that live in Hamilton recall their favourite diners or a barbecue joint near the highway they would frequent on their way to Niagara.
Much like other parts of the Greater Toronto Area, Hamilton has its fair share of shawarma restaurants that have been operating for decades. But only one is universally recommended: Nabil's Grill.
Nabil and Widad Mikho left Baghdad in 1998 due to the intense political turmoil that engulfed Iraq. Neither had a background in food but Widad recalls that food was an integral part of family engagements.
"We would cook and host people all the time. It was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life," she said.
After a short stay in Greece, Widad and Nabil moved to Canada along with their three children.
"We wanted to be with our family and they were in Canada. At first, we moved to Saskatoon but eventually, we moved to Hamilton. Nabil's family is here," Widad said.
After a few jobs, including a stint at a local dairy, Widad remembers Nabil coming home one day with the idea to open a restaurant.
For the both of them, it was a way to preserve the culture they had left behind, and do something they both loved — cooking. In 2001, they found an empty space in a strip mall, steps away from James Street North and the Hamilton Farmers' Market.
Mark Furukawa, who owns a record shop across the street, recalls the day they opened.
"I came in as soon as the open sign was lit because I wanted to meet them and support this business," he said. "Back then, there were very few options for a quick lunch in this area. A good, tasty lunch. I fell in love with Nabil's after the first plate. I've been visiting every week since, sometimes four or five times a week."
Widad Mikho insists that her menu, largely composed of meat and rice, is nothing special.
"This is how we cook at home This is how we cooked back home," she said, slowly shaping marinated ground meat around a steel skewer.
Kabobs are her specialty. "I make the kabobs. Nabil makes the falafel and the shawarma."
"Everyone has their special thing from the menu, but I think the best way to enjoy Nabil's is to get the special platter," Widad said.
The special platter is all of the things I love about Nabil's on one plate. Widad first dresses a plate with a mound of yellow rice — I suggest you ask for the house specialty: biryani with almonds and raisins — and then proceeds to surround the rice with meat.
You can get chicken or beef kabobs. Both are succulent and juicy. Then there's the chicken shawarma, which Widad and Nabil prepare daily with spices and herbs that they would use from back home.
Nabil's falafel is essential. They're crunchy on the outside and pillowy in the centre. The plate is finished off with a large dollop of housemade hummus, tabbouleh salad and drizzled with hot sauce and garlic sauce. I also recommend that you ask for some "meat pita bread" — pita that Widad uses to release the meat from the steel skewers, which catches the meat grease and gristle.
Most diners are familiar with shawarma, the combination of meat on rice with some sort of binding sauce. But at Nabil's, what really works for me is the deftness the couple show in cooking their specialty dishes. The rice is tender, the falafel is fluffy and flavourful. The meats are juicy on the inside with a pop of spice. Everything is cooked with a sense of care as if you were dining in their home.
Since opening in 2001, Nabil's followership built quickly. At first, it started with workers nearby; lawyers and artists who would come in for chicken shawarma and rice. Then word spread, and in the evenings, they would host families for dinner.
With Hamilton's fairly recent boom of restaurants, bars and breweries, locals still show allegiance to Nabil's.
"The growth is great for the city and it's great for us. We cannot thank the local Hamilton people enough for supporting us," Widad said.
Nabil's Grill is at 1 Wilson St. in Hamilton.
Suresh Doss's weekly food segment airs every Thursday on Metro Morning. Watch for video of his jaunts across the city on CBC Toronto's Facebook page.
Do you know a GTA restaurant that Doss should visit? Tweet us @metromorning or send us a message on Facebook. And if you try any of the places he features, we want to see photos!