Mohammad Kalboneh was sick of Madison not having a restaurant focused on shawarma. So with no restaurant experience, he took it upon himself to serve the Mediterranean meat.
With the help of family and friends, Kalboneh, who works by day as a software engineer, opened Mad Shawarma Sept. 8 on Junction Road on Madison’s Far West Side.
Similar to gyros, shawarma is chicken or beef and lamb cooked on a vertical rotisserie, where it spins before getting shaved off.
“And it’s been something that’s been missing in Madison for a long time,” said the Palestinian Kalboneh, 35, who moved to Madison in 2004.
(Incidentally, a Mediterranean street food cafe called Saffron opened in August in UW-Madison’s Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, 330 N. Orchard St., and it serves chicken shawarma.)
Kalboneh said in Madison’s Middle Eastern community, whenever someone would go to Milwaukee or Chicago, others would ask them to bring back shawarma. He was often on both sides of that equation.
“At the end, we got sick of it and decided to make a change in the world and that’s why we opened the restaurant,” he said. “The restaurant business is not our business, but we put a few minds together.”
Kalboneh’s brother, Said Kalboneh, who’s a surgical tech at UW Hospital, and had worked in restaurants in Michigan, helped develop the menu. Another brother, Mahmoud Kalboneh, cooks and manages Mad Shawarma.
Kalboneh didn’t do any major remodeling to turn the former Lola’s Cafe into Mad Shawarma, but he gave it a green-and-red color scheme, and said he’s working to make it feel more cozy.
The restaurant’s signature chicken shawarma, like its other five sandwiches, can come in a pita ($7) or traditional ($8) flatbread called “saj bread.”
The flatbread is the way to go, not that there’s anything wrong with the pita. My chicken shawarma featured small pieces of moist chicken, tomatoes, pickles and a wonderful garlic sauce that dripped from the thin, earthy wrap.
The saj bread is a type of unleavened Bedouin bread that’s popular in Arab countries. The reason it costs more than the pita is because Kalboneh’s mother, Ameera Kalboneh, makes it by hand. It’s also bigger than the pita, so it takes more meat and vegetables to fill.
Kalboneh’s garlic sauce, which he took pains to perfect, is really what makes this a winning sandwich.
The gyro ($8 pita, $9 traditional) was less interesting and on par with other local gyros. Even though what the menu describes as the “meat shawarma” is beef and lamb, it’s much different from a gyro, Kalboneh said.
The meat shawarma ($7 pita, $8 traditional) contains layers of really thin steaks, while the gyro meat is crushed and pressed, he said. The two types of meat are also seasoned differently.
Both the shawarma and gyro were served with medium-cut french fries. At first, they seemed like an unnecessary touch of Americana, but turned out to be a welcome addition to the meal.
The vegetarian combo ($9) was a surprise highlight, starring Mad Shawarma’s delectable hummus served beautifully with a pool of olive oil and chickpeas on top.
The plate also had two narrow, tender stuffed grape leaves, two crisp falafel with a moist interior, and a tabouli salad that was more parsley than bulgur. The platter came with a generous plate of thin pita and a cup of delicious tahini sauce.
Lentil soup ($2 for a cup, $3 for a bowl) is a cheap and rewarding addition to any meal. It was subtly and expertly seasoned, with a great consistency.
Kalboneh’s wife, Doaa Salameh, invented the restaurant’s shawarma rolls, which are deep-fried chicken shawarma and cheese. “This is a new dish that we haven’t seen before,” Kalboneh said. “Basically shawarma in the Wisconsin way.”
If you’re curious about the baklava ($1.50) and the three other less familiar desserts, order them all in the dessert sampler ($5), because all are fantastic. It was hard to choose a favorite between the pistachio baklava, pistachio bird’s nest, mini rose or cashew finger.
They’re all variations on baklava made with phyllo and sugar syrup. The pistachio ones featured plenty of nuts, and the different textures and slightly different flavors make for a fun end to a meal.
Kalboneh said his family is from the West Bank city of Nablus, where baklava is a specialty. During a visit in 2013, he spent time learning to make the phyllo dough. For the restaurant’s treats, he partners with a friend who makes them for him, but he plans to eventually make them in-house.
“The trick is to make them dry and crunchy and not to let the dough absorb the syrup,” Kalboneh said.
Food is a passion for him, Kalboneh said, and customers can taste it in the shawarma, the hummus, the falafel, the lentil soup, the desserts — in the whole, really, of Mad Shawarma.