It’s rarely wise to describe food in stereotypes. Not all English cooking is boring, not all Tex-Mex is cheesy, and not every Chinese restaurant has fortune cookies. It’s an even worse idea to generalize about huge swathes of culinary cultures.
But I’m going to do it anyway. Just this one time, and no more. Through years of eating in Dallas and its suburbs, I’ve discovered one universal rule that seems to hold true.
Middle Eastern restaurants always have great fries.
Why? We’ll get to some theories in a moment. First, let’s consider the evidence. It’s perhaps not impressive to go to one shawarma place and get killer fries. But this article idea has been brewing in my mind for literally years; I visit restaurant after restaurant and the streak continues. Some of the photos here are from 2019.
The fries are diverse, too. A few are modeled after McDonald’s, but many have a satisfying golden crunch. Crinkle cut and curly are not unknown. Every time, whatever style the restaurateur chooses, they hit a home run.
The Middle East is not a world-renowned fry destination. Potatoes don’t have a long history in the region, and have only gained widespread acceptance in certain culinary corners, like Moroccan tagines. As one restaurant owner pointed out to me while we talked through the question, the idea of mashed potatoes is completely alien to most people from the Arab world. But shawarma now isn’t complete without a side of fries—and darn good fries, too.
What’s the deal? Here are my top three theories.
Crunch is a priority
Time after time, I kept encountering a very specific form of fry: one that’s lightly battered on the outside to create both a golden color and a layer of crunch. The crunch factor is, frankly, divine. There’s nothing like a fry with different textures on the inside and outside, a fry that makes a sound when you bite it. These, of course, are also fries that hold up well in takeout boxes.
I’ve encountered divinely crispy halal fries recently at Olive Burger, Sal’s Nashville Hot Chicken, and Shawarma Press. (Just writing that sentence made me want to go to a doctor. And before you ask, yes, Olive Burger puts olives on their burgers.) They’re remarkably similar, although each restaurant adds a slightly different seasoning mix. We’ll get to seasonings in a moment.
At Shawarma Press, I sat down with owner Sawsan Abublan to ask about her secrets to fry superiority. One of the first things she mentioned was that many customers ask for fries inside their shawarma wrap—which would make the crunch factor even more important, since it’s not just a side dish but an essential part of the sandwich experience.
“It took us close to three months to land on that specific type of fry,” Abublan told me. “There are thousands of fries options out there. Our supplier literally, over the three month period, would come to us at least once a week with five different samples of different fries. We would fry each one of them, do a blind taste, and then uncover them to find out which one we liked.”
I appreciate the scientific rigor, and I also appreciate the resulting choice, a Simplot product called Thunder Crunch.
Seasonings go beyond salt
It’s almost not a Middle Eastern fry if it doesn’t have a sprinkling of red chile powder all over it. Seasoned salt, rather than plain, is the norm, and it’s a great way to stand out. You can find good examples at Abu Omar Halal, Adda, Olive Burger, One Hummus, Port of Peri Peri, and Shawarma Press. Adda’s fries also add curly parsley. Beba BBQ puts masala spices on crinkle-cuts. Shawarma Factory Arabi Ifranji would rank in this category, but their seasoning mix also has an off-putting umami agent which makes the fries taste kind of sweaty.
Plus, many places think beyond ketchup as a dipping condiment, offering hot sauces, garlic sauces, tahini, or other dips. And some customers don’t even need those.
“We ask them when we serve the fries, ‘would you like any ketchup?’” Abublan said. “And I want to say 99 percent of them shake their head and say no.”
The barbecue world is filled with amateur judges declaring that a place’s meat is so good that it doesn’t need sauce. Maybe next we can promote fries so well-seasoned they don’t need ketchup.
Owners have fast food expertise
Sal Afridi, owner of Sal’s Nashville Hot Chicken, was until recently a franchisee of a peri peri chicken chain. For a time, he was able to use leftover peri peri seasoning packets on his fries. But the original fast food fry expert is Anwarul Harun, owner of Yummy Burgers and BBQ and maker of some of Richardson’s most flawless potatoes. Harun got firsthand fry expertise at his previous job managing an Arby’s.
When I asked Afridi about his preferred type of fry, he made me think about an element I hadn’t considered before.
“The brand I chose was based on my daughter’s choice,” he said. “She’s 4 years old, very picky, but she eats the fries that we started using. It’s a premium brand.” Now, here comes the plot twist. “But it’s not just about the fries. It’s about the oil. It’s a very expensive, higher tier oil that keeps the fries crisp and the oil lasts longer as well.”
Meanwhile, Shawarma Press is expanding into its own franchiseable business. The original Irving location now has four younger siblings inside Walmarts in Plano, Arlington, Georgetown, and San Antonio, with a franchised location coming soon in Frisco. In the Walmarts, store managers run a clever scheme: they walk through the front of the store, offering free samples of the fries.
“People have a sample of the wrap, and they like that,” Abublan said. “But then they have a sample of the fries, and you see them come back around to get another taste of the fries.”
But how did this happen?
We’ve identified three reasons that Dallas-area halal businesses often have great fries: their leaders have fast food experience, and the fries themselves have lots of crunch and spice. But why did a culture which doesn’t really eat any other kind of potatoes get so obsessed with fries?
I rejected a few theories. The influence of McDonald’s is less common than you’d expect. Thunder Crunch is halal certified, but Simplot makes halal straight cut, waffle, and shoestring fries, too.
“It’s not a historical thing,” Abublan said. “Shawarma is hundreds of years old, and fries are maybe only in the last 40 years.” Then she pulled out her phone and started googling fry history, too. Nobody knows where this spicy, crunchy fry style originates. Maybe a whole new genre is being born before us.
Abublan did have one valuable piece of wisdom for readers: take your leftovers home and put them in an air fryer. The result will be fries as crispy as they were when you first got them.
Speaking of wisdom, I just found out that Lime N Dime in Plano has seven kinds of loaded fries. Enough talking. Let’s eat.
Ten halal restaurants with legit fries
- Abu Omar Halal, Richardson
- Adda, Richardson
- Beba BBQ, Carrollton
- Olive Burger, multiple locations
- One Hummus, Richardson
- Pita Town, Plano
- The Port of Peri Peri, multiple locations
- Sal’s Nashville Hot Chicken, Plano
- Shawarma Press, multiple locations
- Yummy Burgers & BBQ, multiple locations