Metro Detroit’s kabob king restarts reign in Royal Oak Farmers Market

Back from retirement, the former Mr. Kabob chef now serves shawarma out of a carryout window at Kal’s Lunch Bowl

Counterclockwise bottom left to right: Loaded falafel, fooul, shawarma fries, hummus, beef tenderloin bowl, and salad.

For years, to find one of the best kabobs in town, one needed to hit an unlikely spot – the Mobil gas station at the corner of Coolidge and 12 Mile roads. It wasn’t much of a secret that Mr. Kabob chef and manager Kal Al-Amara was rolling up gold as local and national media raved about the Lebanese fare, and a carryout crowd packed the small station on weekend nights.

These days, Mr. Kabob is still rolling, but things changed ever so slightly after Al-Amara left in June 2020. For a time, he resigned himself to retirement. As he tells it, opening a restaurant is a young man’s game, and he’s 60 years old. But noted Royal Oak restaurateur Seymour Schwartz, a man who’s known for not taking “no” for an answer, cajoled Al-Amara out of retirement at some point last year.

Schwartz had secured a small carryout kitchen window in the northeast corner of the Royal Oak Farmers’ Market, and the pair first started by selling hummus and garlic sauce during market hours, but that quickly grew into something more.

Folks, he’s back: metro Detroit’s kabob king has restarted his reign in an unassuming carryout window, which is sort of fitting for a guy who built his career selling shawarma out of a gas station. This time, at Kal’s Lunch Bowl, it’s him and wife Ann, who’s also a chef, holding it down. Note that they’re not just open during farmers’ market hours, but from 10a.m.-6 p.m. every day, except Monday.

The hits are all here, including Al-Amara’s killer shawarmas that aren’t too greasy but never dry. He explains there’s usually a layer of fat on the spit, but he has a grilling technique down that leaves his 100 percent lean beef in that textural sweet spot. Al-Amara manages to pull it off without sacrificing flavor, which, in the chicken’s case, owes to it being marinated for 24 hours in a mix of garlic sauce, cajun spices, oregano, and more.

A new addition is the beef tenderloin kabob with super tender medallions of filet mignon. I suspected it was marinated in lemon or heavy sumac, but Al-Amara said the acidic note is from lime juice. Regardless, it pops and is rolled in a pita with pickles, garlic sauce, onions, and tomatoes.

One can also get the shwaramas and other proteins in a build-your-own-bowl format. I’ve never been too crazy for that approach because I run the risk of screwing it up, and trust Kal to build me an excellent bowl, but I did right this time with chicken shawarma, a flavorful mix of lightly charred grilled veggies doused with an amba sauce — sweet and savory mango puree mixed with cayenne, lemon juice, and more. The house salad with its dried apricots and walnuts stands out.

Arguably my favorite kabob is the sujiq, a small Middle Eastern sausage that’s fiery red and potent from heavy doses of cumin, paprika, and chili powder. The tiny sausages come nestled in the sandwich with lettuce, onions, pickles, and garlic sauce. Fried chicken sandwiches had their moment a couple years ago, and I always found it confounding that Lebanese chicken cream chop pitas weren’t a part of that discussion. Kal’s comes with a thick slather of garlic sauce, lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickles.

The shawarma fries are not the crispest taters in town, but that’s OK because they’re soaked to the core with the flavorful fattoush vinaigrette, with heavy sumac adding a lemon-y component and a blanket of salty feta. The hummus is light and flavorful, and though we didn’t get to try it, the loaded falafel topped with tabbouleh, garlic sauce, and amba puree is on the list for next time around.

If there’s one complaint, it’s that Kal’s isn’t open past 6 p.m., but the kabob king came out of retirement to work over 12 hours almost every day, so we’re cutting the crew a break.

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