In 2019, freshman me was seeking a taste of home, having spent months away for the first time in my life. Defining “home” has always been tricky for me, but in a culinary sense, I feel most at home when eating Indian or Middle Eastern food. This makes sense considering I was raised in the United Arab Emirates in an Indian household. The one food item I missed the most at the time was the chicken shawarma wrap.
If you don’t know what shawarma is, you’ve been missing out big time. Shawarma is a cooking method in which vertical stacks of marinated meat are slow-roasted on a rotating rotisserie grill. This style of cooking imparts a unique flavor that standard grilling methods don’t, in my opinion. Related dishes with similar origins include gyros, döner kebabs and al pastor tacos.
The grilling method is what makes a wrap a shawarma wrap. Much to my chagrin, every time I ordered “shawarma” wraps from restaurants in the area, it felt like the chicken had been grilled like normal. I felt defeated, until I stumbled upon Naf Naf Grill at 555 State St. One of the first things I saw when I walked in was chicken being cooked on a rotating rotisserie grill, and I felt a sense of indescribable triumph: I finally found a restaurant that could take me home.
The shawarma wraps I ate growing up were very simple in construction, consisting of the slow-cooked chicken, pickles, garlic sauce and fries wrapped in Arabic bread. At Naf Naf, I was able to reconstruct this almost in its entirety.
Naf Naf’s pitas are smaller and softer than the bread I had growing up. While I prefer thinner breads for wraps, these pitas are so good they can be eaten plain. Their garlic sauce is fantastic, with a great consistency and the right amount of garlic flavor. Their pickles have the bite that I grew up with. Their chicken is chunky, unlike the thin slices I associate with home, but it is great. While I have seen chicken being cooked on a standard grill during rush hour, the aforementioned rotisserie is central to their operation.
The only item that isn’t replicated is the fries. I have never tried Naf Naf’s fries because they look more like chips to me and are served on the side, unlike the fries that belong in wraps I ate growing up.
In recent months, I tried their bowls. I construct them similar to how I construct my wraps, but with more room for experimentation. I have tried different bowl bases like basmati rice and couscous, and different toppings like lettuce, onions, and s’khug and harissa sauces (both spicy chili sauces). I have grown to prefer s’khug over harissa and couscous over rice. Recently, I also tried their baklava (layered pastry) and their falafel (fried chickpea balls). The baklava is decent, while the falafel is fantastic.
My Naf Naf experience hasn’t been straightforward. I remember eating at Naf Naf before flying solo for the first time after a triumphant first semester. I remember eating their food when we went on spring break in 2020 and never really returned. As COVID-19 hit hard, the restaurant closed. I went on to spend over a year away from Madison, and when I returned, the restaurant was still closed. I thought they were gone for good, much like the life I envisioned before COVID-19.
Thankfully, they bounced back this summer, perhaps even better than I did. Boy am I glad.
Anupras Mohapatra is a former opinion editor for The Daily Cardinal and currently serves on the Editorial Board. He is a senior double majoring in Computer Science and Journalism.