The first thing you need to know about the shawafel wrap at Middle East Bakery & Grocery is that everything in it is fresh. Its ingredients are delivered three times weekly; the constituent parts are assembled and cooked each morning. Hisham Khalifeh, who opened Middle East Bakery & Grocery in 1981, says it’s the freshness and quality of ingredients that sets the food at his grocery store and cafe apart from other Mediterranean fare in Chicago. In addition to sandwiches, he sells chocolate baklava, macaroons, and an entire refrigerator rack’s worth of sheep’s milk cheeses.
“We use high-quality ingredients, fresh chickpeas, fresh onions—and our customers know it,” says Khalifeh.
The cafe, an expansion on the Andersonville grocery, has been around for five years. The shawarma, both chicken or beef, does particularly well, according to Khalifeh, as do the kebabs. But for me, there is only the shawafel wrap.
I came across the sandwich four years ago during my first trip to Middle East Bakery with a friend. After I took that first bite, I sat in silence for so long that my friend looked at me with concern and asked if I was OK.
“This,” I mumbled through a full mouth, not so much to him as to the universe at large, “is the best sandwich I’ve ever had.”
It’s difficult to overstate the sheer number of flavors and textures the sandwich manages to contain. The falafel, soft and fluffy with a crisp breaded crust, is loaded with garlic, while the chicken shawarma is tender and soaked in a savory marinade. The lettuce and pickle add a much-needed crunch, while the hummus and creamy tahini pull everything together and keep the wrap refreshing. Where most sandwiches are composed with rigid order, the shawafel wrap features a near-chaotic convergence of disparate tastes, the Stravinsky to other sandwiches’ Bach.
We’ve developed a ritual, the sandwich and I. It has come to occupy the distinct role of food I turn to when faced with profound sadness. I have other emotionally driven food-based rituals: a strawberry milkshake from Potbelly to celebrate accomplishments, a chocolate doughnut from 7-Eleven after completing a dreaded and arduous task. I love sugar. But sweetness, much as I may crave it, ultimately lacks the range to comfort me through true despondency—some feelings require a savory flavor palette.
The night my boyfriend told me he was in love with someone else, I took the train 11 stops to Middle East Bakery. I tried not to cry in public, but tears dripped onto the pita despite my best efforts. In that moment, the cafe table where I sat felt like its own little island and everything on the other side of the storefront window—the cars, people walking their dogs, the train that I would eventually have to ride back home—felt indescribably distant.
I’d return a year or so later, on an early December afternoon that was snowy but still bright. I was about to leave school without knowing when or if I’d return; college, I’d realized too late, was never meant for me, and trying so hard for so long at something I just couldn’t seem to succeed at had drained me until I was unable to try anymore. My fear and regret were sprawling, infecting everything they touched, but in the cafe, biting into the shawafel wrap, I still found temporary shelter and comfort.
I realize that I’m not going to stop getting my heart broken anytime soon. It comes with the territory of harboring expectations—of yourself, of those you love, of the future—which is, of course, impossible to avoid. Every major disappointment breeds its own miniature cycle of grief—for the life you might’ve thought you would have if things had gone according to plan, or for the person you would have liked to be, but aren’t. That my generation is poised to inherit a world filled with crisis, horror, and uncertainty is an undue added layer of grief, one that neither I nor anyone I know seems equipped to handle.
Whenever I walk into Middle East Bakery, inevitably distraught, I do so nervously, worried that I have mentally hyperbolized the shawafel wrap, and it won’t be as good as I remembered. Somehow, though, it always manages to live up to my expectations, and always brings some unique gustatory pleasure that I hadn’t noticed before. The shawafel wrap never disappoints, and that’s what makes it the perfect comfort food, one that can withstand the whirlwind of heartbreak. And it’s always fresh. v
Middle East Bakery & Grocery 1512 W. Foster, 773-561-1853, middleeastbakeryandgrocery.com.