By Nikko Ong
A set of broken concrete steps leads to an underground shop that sits at the corner of Maisonneuve and Crescent, and its petite size belies the treasures within. Upon entering, you’ll feel the hot-air blast from much-loved frying oil and the aroma of the slowly revolving shawarma that beckons you in like the gentle wave of your honorary Lebanese uncle. The decor is dated, and the worn upholstery feels like an old friend. Arabic football plays on the TV in the window, and clients huddle around their styrofoam boxes and plastic trays. The treasure sits before them, and they are too entranced with it to notice you enter.
Back-lit menus cover the upper section of a wall, depicting faded, fuzzy pictures of the variety of dishes you can order. The important panel is on the left most side, the one that practically sits atop the till. Behold the pita menu.
Vegetarian, falafel, chicken kebab, kafta, mixed, beef shawarma, chicken shawarma, and, most notably “The Creation.” These choices lack description beyond their title and they stand with the inherent bluntness of their sans serif font. Take it or leave it, they seem to say, just order and eat.
Standing in front of the assembly line, you can see the fresh tabbouleh and hummus alongside bright pink pickled turnips and crispy golden falafel. Glistening toum (garlic sauce) and the darling fried garlic potatoes adorn metal bowls of hot sauce, tomatoes, lettuce, and eggplant. Behind the counter, alongside the busy workers scrambling to toss plates together, there are several slowly rotating spits of thinly shaved and stacked meat that dribble juices onto the glowing heating elements, singing the melody of shawarma.
The man behind the counter asks for your order, and you freeze. So many choices, and so little time.
Popular choices include the chicken shawarma and The Creation. You can see the speckled exterior of the chicken that dances behind the cook, and it beckons to you. Choose me, choose me! The Creation, on the other hand, is a monstrosity that you feel you must try. Heaps of different kinds of shawarma are stuffed with veggies and garlic potatoes and a falafel into a bursting pita that is topped with garlic sauce and grilled. It screams of excess, and isn’t that what you came here looking for? People often recommend getting the garlic potatoes too, which means that a trio (pita, garlic potatoes, and a drink) doesn’t look too bad either. The garlic potatoes offer immediate crunch and a delicate and soft interior, and the garlic sauce is akin to crack. It’s hard to stop.
The problem with all of these choices is not at all that they taste bad. On the contrary, these are some of the most delicious pitas you’ll find in downtown Montreal. My issue with them is how I feel after devouring every bite. I’m no nutritional expert, but there is little to be had in terms of a well-balanced, healthy meal with The Creation. Sure, you could pop across the street to Mandy’s for a phenomenal and $25 bucket of greens and dressing, but you came to Boustan for a reason. Get fed, get stupid happy, and don’t go broke.
The Creation offers fleeting happiness, which is quickly replaced by utter self-loathing after you raise the white flag on the oily plate of garlic sauce. The chicken shawarma pita offers a glimpse of a beautiful meal that is sometimes both underwhelmingly and nauseatingly dry.
The best option, when your friend behind the counter asks, is the vegetarian pita. No trio, no drink. That’s all, please and thank you.
The vegetarian pita is the best pita sandwich to get at Boustan because it offers all the delightful flavors you’ve salivated over with the correct amounts of garlic potatoes and sauce. The sauteed eggplant and egg omelette slices that make up the bulk of the sandwich are absolutely packed with flavor, and they offer a rich depth and satisfying bite. Garlic potatoes are gently nestled into a bed of lettuce, tomatoes, and onions and the entire pita is finished off with a drizzle of sauce. You eat that, and you get the crack potatoes without feeling like you’re siphoning a bottle of olive oil, and you don’t feel like crashing afterward. And hey, you’re helping reduce your meat consumption, saving a little cash, and trying something new.
The vegetarian pita is the true underdog of the legendary Boustan, and it’s high time that you either tried one, or ordered another. That’s the real treasure of Boustan.