FOOD AND DRINK
How Johnny K's is Reviving the Classic Halifax Donair
Wholesome, hand-built, and ethically sourced, Johnny K's gives new life to Nova Scotia's gooey twist on a meaty Middle Eastern snack.
Halifax is a known as a drinking town. Maybe that’s why its most famous dish, the mighty donair, is something that most people in the world order when slightly inhibriated – and then quickly regret.
But perhaps they shouldn’t regret the choice at all: donairs are the stuff of legend, something every visitor to Halifax should try. It’s especially easy to take pride in them now that a shop has opened offering delicious ethical and even vegetarian donairs.
For those who have no idea what a donair is, and would be unable to identify what that aromatic meaty lump on a spit is, here’s a primer: ground meat, traditionally lamb but more commonly beef or chicken in Canada, is spiced and formed into the donair kebob, then grilled on a vertical spit, which is said to keep the fat and juices in the meat as it cooks. Thin slices of the meat are served on a pita, topped with onions, tomatoes, and a variety of other delicious toppings, such as tzatziki. This is then wrapped in foil and eaten as fast as possible in order to stop the deliciousness seeping through the pita, finding a hole in the foil wrapper, and ending up all over your shoes.
What makes a Halifax donair different is there’s no tzatziki. It is instead served with a unique sauce invented in Halifax in the 1970s, when donairs were first introduced here. Made with evaporated milk, vinegar, garlic powder, and sugar, Halifax donair sauce tastes like garlic frosting, and as grotesque as that sounds, it is addictively delicious (to some, anyway) and pairs perfectly with the spicy meat.
Donairs have never exactly been considered clean eating, hence the morning-after regret factor. A new donair shop in town called Johnny K’s aims to change the perception. It’s located on Pizza Corner, where Grafton Street and Blowers Street meet. This is where the masses have converged at closing time in Halifax for decades, in search of donairs as well as pizza; late-night snack-slingers occupy multiple corners (currently two of four), hence the name. Johnny K’s is serving up donairs that are preservative-, hormone- and chemical-free, and hand-built just like they were in the good old days. The shop uses locally sourced beef, chicken, and other ingredients wherever possible. You can even order a vegetarian donair at Johnny K’s.
Peter Nahas owns Johnny K’s with his brother Tony and another local restaurateur Marcel Khoury. The brothers grew up around donairs. Their parents started local chain Tony’s Donairs in the 1990’s, which later became Venus, and the family now owns the highly successful Meza Lebanese Kitchen chain. Peter Nahas says that he and his brother have always wanted to have this kind of donair store, but they were waiting for the perfect location and concept. “We bought this spot at the end of March, and were open by July 30. It moved really fast,” he says.
Lola Augustine Brown
And why does Nahas care about serving up a quality donair experience? He is passionate about the way donairs used to be made, and wants to pay homage to the guys who do it old school. The name Johnny K’s is a shout out to John Kamoulakos, the first person to bring donairs to Halifax in the 1970s.
Nahas remembers watching his dad build donairs by hand when he was three years old. “He used to take the meat, grind it himself, build it, put it in the freezer, then use it. Then in the late ’90s everyone switched to factory-made meat filled with preservatives, and the taste started changing – you never knew what you were getting,” he says, “It was kind of sad. We wanted to do it right, the way dad did.”
The result of doing it old school is absolutely delicious. You unwrap the foil and there’s an explosion of perfectly seasoned meat wrapped in a thick Lebanese style pita, topped with tomatoes, onions, and that sweet, sweet sauce. It definitely tastes more wholesome than the usual Halifax donair, and you might not feel bad for eating it. (Your correspondent actually wanted a second one, despite the fact it was massive. It was that good.)
An old gentlemen in the shop walks over and says he was one of the first people in Halifax to taste a donair, at the original Johnny K’s on Quinpool Road in the 1970s. He says the new Johnny K’s donairs taste just as good. Nahas grins. “That’s who love it, the older guys who remember what it was. They come in and fist-bump me and say, ‘Wow, this is what they were like before. They get a little emotional sometimes.’ ”
Johnny K’s, 5246 Blowers Street. 902-420-1010
This article was originally published on October 8, 2015