Sort-of Secret: Zayzoun Mediterranean Restaurant, the best shawarma spot in Etobicoke that no one is talking about
Part of our series shining a spotlight on the city’s hidden edible gems
The sort-of secret: Zayzoun, a Mediterranean restaurant in Etobicoke
You may have heard of it if: You live near Bloor and Kipling
But you probably haven’t tried it because: You can blink and miss the little plaza it’s in
Zayzoun is a town in southern Syria known for its beautiful waterfalls. It’s the place where Nabel Al Ali felt most at home and made his fondest memories of his home country. He named his restaurant Zayzoun as a way to feel connected to the place he was forced to leave. “It was full of fun, full of family. It was safe…before the war started,” Ali says.
In 2013, everything that belonged to Ali—his home, his car—was destroyed by bombings. He was forced to leave Syria with his wife and two children (they’ve had another two kids since) and seek refugee status. In 2016, the United Nations offered Canada as a home, so Ali set about building a new life for his family.
Ali has a degree in political science and experience as a translator, but his degree wasn’t recognized in Canada. He ended up taking a job at a shawarma counter in downtown Toronto. It turned out that he could make a mean sandwich, and his wife would ask him over and over to make sandwiches for their kids, now 13, 10, 8 and 6. After a while, Ali had the idea to try his hand at opening his own restaurant, despite there being no history of anyone in his family doing so before.
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“I have nothing to lose, let me do something I like to do,” Ali remembers thinking. “I love to make food, so I decided to start a restaurant.” Ali started researching locations that matched his budget and the clientele he was looking to serve, landing on Etobicoke. He grew excited by the prospect of what he could build there.
At Zayzoun, Ali offers a menu of regular chicken shawarma wraps and plates, but his specialty is the chicken shawarma saj, a 15-inch wrap stuffed with chicken and a choice of toppings (tomatoes, onion, turnips, pickles) then toasted to perfection. Customers who are intimidated by its size can opt for either a regular chicken shawarma wrap or the Arabic chicken saj, which sees the 15-inch wrap cut into pieces. It comes with a side of fries as well as garlic and pomegranate dipping sauces. Pomegranate is a staple ingredient in Syria, so the fruit-based sauce brings a taste of home to all of Ali’s dishes.
Another favourite among customers is the chicken shawarma meal, a plate overflowing with tender spiced chicken served on rice and topped with caramelized onions (flavoured with the same special sauce Ali uses to marinate his chicken) and sided with garlic potatoes, pickles, garlic sauce and hummus.
While Ali would love to offer more—especially traditional Syrian dishes like shish barak and sheikh el mahshi—the pandemic, which forced back-to-back lockdowns, has limited the restaurant’s growth since he first opened Zayzoun back in June 2019.
The restaurant, located a few minutes away from Kipling Station, seats 15 people and welcomes guests with a mix of both traditional and modern Arab music streaming from the speakers. Ali—who currently runs the place with just one co-worker—is a perfectionist, and before any expansion, he wants to ensure that he has the right staff to maintain the quality of the food and the customer service. Also (and this is a big part of what makes Zayzoun’s shawarma sort-of secret), with four children and only one employee, Ali doesn’t open the restaurant on weekends. Zayzoun is a Monday-to-Friday affair, and Saturdays and Sundays are for family.
Zayzoun, 3836 Bloor St. W., 647-748-2364, @zayzoun_restaurant