A lot of people point to poutine as the ultimate Canadian food, but I say they can keep it. For my money, that steaming heap of salty beige flavours is a slog through monotony, no matter how squeaky the cheese curds.
To me the donair seems more profoundly Canadian. Like the majority of our nation, it isn’t originally from here. But something happened to, I’m going to guess, beef shawarma as it was passing through Halifax. The intercession of processed meat bulbs and the advent of sweet sauce—basically condensed milk and vinegar—the donair has become a near ubiquitous part of communities big and small across this nation. Best of all, the donair has yet to fall victim to corporate standardization, so purveyors tend to be independent, if not always very unique in their approach.
Thus, it seemed logical to mark Canada’s 150 with a trip to my neighbourhood vendor of this quintessentially hoser repast. But typical of most Edmonton neighbourhoods, Capilano offered half-a-dozen independently owned donair shops, so I turned to the online opinions of strangers to narrow it down. There were 101 such strangers who had colluded to rank Simply Donairs almost a five-star eating experience.
Situated in what could be a stock photo of an Edmonton strip mall next to a 7-11 and a liquor store, Simply Donairs is surprisingly large inside and scrupulously clean, though otherwise very donair shop-ish, right down to the fingerprint-stained stack of Edmonton Suns on top of the trash bin. Just after 5 p.m. on a Thursday, there was already a small lineup and a steady flow of inbound customers—an encouraging signal that locals had taken Simply to their hearts.
Simple certainly describes the halal menu, which mostly comprises beef and chicken donairs in pita, platter or salad form, with a falafel option for hapless vegetarian patrons. Co-diner and I agreed to sample as widely as we could—a regular beef donair ($9.22) with cheese ($0.71) and a large falafel ($8.21), plus fries and some baklava.
The counter staff were pleasant and efficient—it’s as easy to win me over as saying, “What would you like on your donair, my friend?”—and wielded a heavy hand with ingredients. Simply’s generosity with all the fixings was remarkable, which might be the main fashion in which a donair joint sets itself apart. Co-diner actually commented on how much our take-out weighed.
Back at the crib, we attempted to divvy the spoils, but unwrapping the massively overloaded donair sent spicy beef rinds and toppings everywhere. The falafel was a bit easier to manage, so I started there and was pleased to find the fried chickpea orbs were lightly seasoned with appropriate aromatic spices (allspice, cinnamon, cumin). But the profusion of toppings—not just lettuce, tomato and onion, but pickles and banana peppers—and the serious dose of garlicky tzatziki nearly obscured the falafel itself.
In contrast, the donair was extraordinarily beefy, almost burger-like, and co-diner had asked for black olives and mushrooms on top of the standard toppings. Again, this is how a donair shop shows the love: by laying on a few extras you don’t find everywhere.
Aside from having to unhinge my jaw to take a bite, I relished the mass of peppery beef, molten ersatz white cheese and sweet sauce along with crunchy and savoury garnishes. After we were both sated, with the help of an absurdly large serving of crinkly fries, there was enough filling left over in the wrapper for another donair of average dimensions.
Some people are obsessed with pronouncing a “best donair” in Edmonton. I don’t know if Simply’s donair is the best—it would take a tragically foreshortened lifetime to test it against every competitor in Edmonton—but it’s an excellent example of the form. Moreover, it’s a testament to the Canadian dream, where a coarse bastardization of authentic ethnic food allows so many strip-mall entrepreneurs to not just survive, but thrive. God bless this meat bulb-loving land of ours.