Chef Mohammad Abutaha’s presence registers when you walk into his uptown Oakland restaurant Shawarmaji. His affable, engaging personality is central to the promising start of his culinary business. Step by step, Abutaha, a former engineering student, confidently learned the profession from the inside. He worked at Reem’s Fruitvale location before starting his own pop-up through Forage, the shared kitchen and event space in Oakland.
Before moving to the East Bay, Abutaha commuted from Sunnyvale to Oakland. He quickly fell in love with Oakland’s diversity and, at the same time, with an Oakland resident, the woman he later married. “I love the fact that there are just so many different kinds of people here,” he says, “and anywhere you go, you don’t feel out of place.” The chef adds that the beauty of the place—the lake and the hills—spoke to him.
A shawarmaji, he says, is the person who makes your shawarma. Abutaha’s take on the wrap is meat-forward and meat-centric. Both the chicken and lamb are slow-roasted. The lamb is served with red onions, tomatoes and a tahini sauce. The chicken, though, comes with cucumber pickles and the chef’s famous toum, which looks like a cooling side of yogurt or sour cream but turns out to be a frothy garlic sauce with the same hard kick as horseradish.
Jordanian by birth, Abutaha doesn’t use the flatbread, or shrak, that is commonly used there. When he started the pop-up, Shawarmaji used tortillas. Now he’s partnered with Sacramento’s Jerusalem Bakery. They make a “hybrid” wrap bread similar to a lavash—but he’d still prefer to use shrak. “It’s really hard to find,” Abutaha says. “I honestly have not been able to find anybody who can make it.”
What’s more important to Abutaha, though, is what’s on the inside, “The fact that there’s only chicken, garlic and pickles.” He also serves a vegan falafel sandwich on a round, toasted bread called khobz hamam. Abutaha says that translates into English as “pigeon bread.” He doesn’t claim it is a “traditional” way of eating falafel but, “it is something that has been made in Jordan, for at least 20, 30 years.”
Abutaha is slowly expanding the menu at Shawarmaji. He added a brunch service—from 10am to 2pm—on weekends, which includes hummus; fatteh hummus; sujuk, or sausage shawarma; ful, or fava beans; falafel; and fresh and pickled veggies. My chicken shawarma was a dish he made in partnership with Tacos El Precioso, an Oakland taco pop-up. Instead of the yogurt marinade, the chicken was cooked “al pastor style,” with tomatillo salsa verde, toum, pickled red onions and grilled pineapples.
Chef Abutaha thought the food at Tacos El Precioso was delicious, so he reached out to them on Instagram and asked if they wanted to partner with him. “What I love about Oakland is being part of a community,” he says. “Part of that is inviting different chefs to collaborate.” It’s one thing to do research online, but Abutaha says he’d rather partner with someone who’s already immersed in a cuisine that he’s less familiar with in the kitchen.
“I’m going to go back to Jordan in August for a few weeks, so we probably won’t do anything in August,” Abutaha says. But he plans to reach out to other local chefs for more culinary collaborations in the fall. While he’s away, the kitchen will be expanded. When he and his brother—his financial backer and “not-so-silent” business partner—bought the lease from Gastropig, they opened with “a super-tight budget.” And, he says, “We didn’t have a chance to actually build it out the way we really wanted it.”
When he first started his own pop-up series at Reem’s, Abutaha tried to recreate the dinner parties his family held. As Shawarmaji slowly establishes itself in the Uptown neighborhood, the chef would like to experiment in the future, “to recreate the food that my grandmother used to make.” He doesn’t know if that will take place at Shawarmaji, though. “I don’t know if I will open up a new restaurant,” he says. “Who knows what the future will bring?”