1235 17 Ave. SW
Calgary, AB T2T
Open 10:30am-midnight, M-W; 10:30am-1:00am Thu; 11am-3am Fri-Sat; Noon-9pm Sunday
Donair. Gyro. Shawarma. Really, these all are different words for the same thing – meat on a spit. Each word is a different name for the same mediterranen dish – The Turkish Doner Kebab. Many countries in the Eastern Med have a variation on this dish that combines spit-grilled meat with pita, vegetables, and sauce. In a city with a reasonable med presence (Greeks, Lebanese), donairs are fairly common place, Based on many recommendations from the food hounds over at Chowhound, I finally got around to try Sammy’s Donair. Sammy’s Donair is similar, yet different, to many of the Lebanese-run establishments around Calgary.
The first thing you’ll notice about Sammy’s Donairs are the hours. Open till an astounding 3am on Fridays and Saturdays, it is a pleasant alternative to the fast food choices available late at night in Calgary. Especially along that stretch of 17th Avenue. The second thing you’ll notice is that it is a one man show. This is not fast food… nor is it an efficient assembly line churning out your donair. While everything is done methodically and by hand, there are certain advantages and drawbacks to this model.
Let me start by stating i have my own preference for how Shawarmas/Donairs need to be served. As in all things, everyone’s preferences are different. First off, the pita. It needs to be grilled. The contrast in texture of the crunchy pita with the soft fillings is an important part of the experience. Secondly, the meat needs to be high quality meat that is a good combination of soft, and crispy. This can often be best obtained by freshly shaving meat off the spit, and steaming, or slowly warming the meat up. Third, fillings must be fresh, and plentiful. Flavourful meat, crunchy vegetables, tangy pickles, and some heat from hot peppers are an important balance to a donair. Fourth, the sauce needs to pack a punch, and tie the sandwich together. In a sauce, im looking for creamy, garlicky, soothing, flavourful, and a little bit spicy. Something like a combination of Tahini, Tzatziki, and a little Siracha. And lots of it. A donair without sauce is not a donair at all in my mind. Lastly, size + wrapping. It needs to be tight, but filled to the brim… skimpy, sad looking donairs are not worth the time. And often in Calgary, that is what we end up with.
At Sammy’s there are several choices – standard choices of beef, chicken, donair, and falafel. There was also a non-standard choice – lamb. I love lamb, so i had to try this out.
The sandwich process at Sammy’s Donair is slow. He hand prepares everything, which means everything is done carefully, and well loaded. He is careful to customize each order to ensure it meets each customers preferences. This is all great – except it takes a while.
The lamb sandwich ($9.95) itself was fairly wonderful – a meat i haven’t found very often in Calgary donair shops. I ordered a large, and he provided the option of white or whole wheat pita. While i like whole wheat, i don’t find it tastes very good for pita-based sandwiches. I opted for the white. First he placed the pita on the grill to crisp it up and warm it up. Then proceeded to cut mounds of fresh lamb off the spit. Fatty, flavourful, and moist lamb. He then put the lamb on a scoop and grilled the meat under the grill as well, presumably to destroy any surface bacteria, but also to crisp up the meat a bit. The sandwich was topped with a variety of fresh fillings, loaded with meat, and topped with a variety of sauces – 6 to choose from. I did a combination of tahini, tzatziki, and hot sauce. The sandwich was wrapped tightly, but due to the mound of filling, could not be sealed completely. Then placed in a clear baggie to catch any excess sauce dripping (a small detail that my dry cleaners are sad about), a hefty sandwich is handed over to be enjoyed.
I have to say, this was a very good sandwich. The lamb flavour was present, but not overpowering. The pita was great, and the vegetables provided a nice contrast and balance of textures and flavours – spicy, sweet, sour, creamy, crispy, and soft.. The quality of the meat, and the veg were not quite as among the best i’ve had – the lamb was particularly fatty, but im not always looking for quality in a donair. Quantity counts, and the assembled sandwich from Sammy’s Donair meets the standard for donairs on many levels. Big, tasty, and filling. At 2am on a Friday night in Calgary, that is more than we can expected from most other establishments.