Copenhagen has become a pilgrimage town for the foodie crowd, a city they visit just to experience extraordinary meals prepared by extraordinary chefs. While attending the fourth MAD food and ideas conference (which he Instagrammed for Fathom), Lucky Peach editor Peter Meehan and a crew of America's top chefs ventured off the well-traveled path in search of epic shawarma sandwiches at a divey but delicious kebab stand.
COPENHAGEN – I did not arrive in Copenhagen intending to repatriate to the nation of Kebabistan. No, I hoped that years of careful politicking and friendship-forging with the world's most famous half-Macedonian chef would land me a seat at Noma, where I could indulge in a couple quiet hours of hyper-delicate flower-eating.
But sometimes God opens up the pet door when you thought he was supposed to be opening a window. And by that I mean that on my first night in Copenhagen this summer (I was there for the fourth MAD conference), I ended up at Kebabistan.
Kebabistan is a mini-chain: There are three, all more or less equal. (But there's no website.) One eats shawarma sandwiches and French fries at Kebabistan, not kebabs. I was told all of this in advance of my first visit by my guides, the oversized Asian twins chefs David Chang and Chris Ying. On their first night in town, they had gone there a few hours after dinner at Noma. It seems that the lightness of the meal at Noma — one of my favorite facets of the restaurant's menu — plus a few hours of drinking had awoken the need for a hot meat sandwich, and Kebabistan was the destination.
The following night, my first in town, there was a get-to-know-each-other barbecue helmed by the talented and hilarious chef Paul Cunningham. Lambs were roasted. San Francisco chef Chris Cosentino grilled up very delicious sweetbreads. Mission Chinese chef Danny Bowien fried chunks of impeccable local whitefish and dusted them in his wing spice. Massimo Bottura was going around grating lemon over some risotto-like thing he'd improvised.
And yet as the day came to a close, we stood on formality that because the meal had happened during sunlight, more food was needed at night. We hired a cab and cheerily told him, "Take us to Kebabistan!" The guy barely hit the gas as he told us, "You know around the corner?"
And it was, and moments later we were there, in the brightly lit space, face to face to languidly spinning spits of meat and a humorless counterman. Ying and Chang told me I'd be having mixed shawarma — the previous evening they had found that the mixed meat option was superior to a straight lamb or chicken experience, and who was I to argue about the superiority of comingled flesh? — on a Turkish roll, which in the United States we might call a hoagie or a sub or a grinder.
They opted for their sandwiches on durum bread, a disc of flatbread that Mr. Kebabistan heated up on a griddle. I am a chronic pain in the ass with a severe persecution complex, so I protested that I was getting the shaft, that they were making me eat my shawarma on white bread because I was a white man and scoring the ethnicier flatbread for themselves. Dave and Chris are well acclimatized to my racial paranoia, and waved me off: No, man, the Turkish roll is the play, we're just checking this option out.
The man built our sandwiches, loading them up with every bit of shredded and sliced vegetation under the sneeze guard in a style that we call dragging-it-through-garden in my ancestral home of Chicago. Mayonnaise went in. We anointed the sandwiches with oodles of the smoky, tomatoey chile sauce that sat out on the counter for eating and...it was a shawarma sandwich. A good shawarma sandwich! A filling sandwich, something that pushed us into the red zone of fullness that leads to terrifying dreams and uneasy sleep, which is what we had bargained for.
But was Kebabistan the ne plus ultra of shawarma stands in Copenhagen? This question, the terrible curse of the food nerd, creeped into my mind. Sure, we were eating half-crappy food late at night, but were we eating the city's BEST half-crappy food?
I got a chance to do some vetting the next night. We had planned to eat at Fiskebar, which is one of my favorite restaurants in the world. A great stopover for pristine Nordic seafood, amazing bread, and a little hanky panky fancy stuff to round out the meal.
But we lost our reservation, and our group, which was supposed to be six or eight, had clown-carred up to sixteen or twenty. So we walked and walked, hungry and hungrier, following the red Google Maps beacon back to Kebabistan. We passed countless competing kebab/shawarma operations on the way — at least a dozen, maybe more. And when our posse arrived at the nation station of Kebabistan, the joint was jammed up, halfway, with other MAD symposium attendees.
To maintain my reputation for insufferability and to make sure that our zombie-hungry horde didn't start eating each other while waiting for the goods, we formed three teams: One would order a dozen sandwiches from Kebistan. Tony Kim, from Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York, headed east to the next open shawarma stand to order a handful of sandwiches, and Frederik Berselius (a Swedish chef most recently at Aska in Brooklyn) and I headed the other direction to do the same. (Neither contingent had to walk more than 100 yards: That's how many shawarma places there are in Copenhagen.)
Then we reassembled and stood outside of Kebabistan, passing around sandwich after sandwich, declaiming and arguing, and ultimately submitting to a truth I'd resisted practically since I'd gotten to town: Kebabistan was the best of the lot.
When you go to find out for yourself, get the mixed meat shawarma on a Turkish roll with everything. Douse it in the spicy stuff from the bowl on the counter. Get the fries. They're totally factory-food, and totally super crisp, and totally super awesome dipped in mayonnaise outside at night in Copenhagen when you've done a terrible job of making plans to eat elsewhere.
Kebabistan - Nørrebro
Kebabistan - Vesterbro
BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE
Fathom's Copenhagen Guide
Little Black Book: The Danish Chef's Guide to Copenhagen's Best Restaurants (Peter isn't the first Fathom contributor to rave about Kebabistan)
Local Obsessions: Danish Smørrebrød
Let's Fly to Denmark for Dinner