Shawarma is having a moment in Los Angeles, spurred on by spots in the San Fernando Valley and South Bay strip malls, specifically. It’s easy to understand why, given the ubiquity of the dish globally and its ability to pack big flavors into small bites. But there is no one in LA doing shawarma quite like Avi Cue, the master of the wagyu spit. Right now, his meaty pita sandwiches may just be the best bite of food anywhere in LA.
Owner Aviad Yalin’s Studio City strip mall space — really just a light refresh of a closed Tacos 1986 location — hums during the day with chatting customers and the pulsing background sounds of feel-good Israeli music. A small line tends to form just before the doors open at noon, with diners peeking through the glass to watch the spit in action. It rotates slow and purposefully, glimmering in some places with fat and offering dark brown patches in others.
Yalin, thin and smiley and usually wearing a T-shirt that reads “Relax! It’s wagyu,” mans the layers of meat — electric shaver in hand. His team packs the ribbons of beef into warm half-pitas, serving sandwiches the way Yalin intends: heavily spiced and with only tomato, onion, and parsley tucked inside. Tahini and amba sauces line the top, giving creaminess and zip to the whole thing. Even though the pita sandwiches are served on those zigzag metal taco holder things, they’re rarely put down between bites, lest a bit of meat sprinkle out from an open edge. At Avi Cue, every bite counts.
Yalin did not come by his wagyu spit setup over night. The former construction worker is a prolific backyard grill and pitmaster, and he’s been perfecting his shawarma with pop-ups around Los Angeles for the past few years. For him, it was a moment of rethinking his beef choices that led him to where he is today, with a vinyl Avi Cue sign hanging in front of the Valley restaurant he owns. “Basically, everything started as a hobby,” Yalin says. “I was testing everything, always in my backyard. I bought a used machine (not a commercial one by any means), and would use different kinds of meat and seasoning but it didn’t taste anything like I wanted it to. The first 15, 20 tries were bad.”
After a score of misses, Yalin decided to thinly slice some Australian wagyu he had in his home kitchen to see if the results would improve. “I noticed a difference right away,” he says. From there, it was all about dialing in the seasoning. “It’s the essence of the business,” Yalin says of his secretive 11-spice blend. “The meat of course is a big part, but the importance of the seasoning...it’s like rice for sushi.”
Public pop-ups followed, starting at Slab on West Third Street with friend Burt Bakman, who had been a backyard test subject in the early shawarma days. Now, one pandemic and a career change later, and Yalin is selling absolutely stuffed $15 wagyu sandwiches down the street from his house, and he’s doing it entirely on his own terms.
“In Israel, the most common thing is for you to go into a shawarma place and you will be asked what you want inside,” says Yalin. “You can have 15 or 20 different options for salads and things. In my eyes this is wrong. So I take what I like, tomato, onion, and parsley, and that’s it. For me, this is the dish. This is the right way to eat it.”
There are a couple of other menu items as well like arayes, ground wagyu that’s stuffed into a half-pita with fried onion and parsley, then griddled. The fries (which can be served loaded, with shawarma on top) are a nice option too, but the whole place really centers on that shawarma-stuffed pita. It is rich, filling, and a relative steal at $15. The simplicity of the add-ons and the snap of the sauce make this one of the best possible things to eat in LA right now, an admittedly bold statement in a city filled with great dishes.
“I keep it simple, that's the idea,” says Yalin of his three-item menu. “I’m not coming from a restaurant background, I’m not a chef by any means.” There are plans to add rotating specials, including a possible cheeseburger pita, but so far he’s happy with the crowds he’s getting to this tiny strip mall space along a busy stretch of Ventura Boulevard. Yalin knows that he’s doing it exactly the way he envisioned during his backyard testing days. “It’s for me. I want it simple and unique and fresh, and this answers all of that.”
Avi Cue is open weekdays for lunch at 11288 Ventura Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 91604, with an extension to 10 p.m. on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights.