Where Bread Is King

Make a Pilgrimage to Jamillah Garden

Photo by Jessica CalkinsIslamic Chinese cooking is a rarity in Southern California, eclipsed by $1 combo plates, fried rice and a nice side of MSG. But there it is in Tustin: Jamillah Garden, an expansive, always-crowded oasis where customers speak Arabic as often as Chinese, where bread is king. Inside, photos of Mecca and bamboo paintings recall a time when 7th-century Arab traders obsessed with meat (but terrified of pork) brought the rigid-but-refreshing halal guidelines to the Chinese anything's-edible, noodles-and-rice worldview. Chinese converts to Islam went on to concoct a culinary truce famous across Asia—hearty, greasy but nuanced grub that seems like the product of a single continent before continental drift, a time when maybe the deserts of Arabia baked beneath China's Tien Shan Mountains. And then everything was covered in soy sauce.

A Jamillah Garden meal starts as it does in most Chinese restaurants—complimentary green tea, egg flower soup, and egg rolls sparkling with freshness. The service can be a bit forgetful, but forgive: Jamillah Garden runs in an industrial park, and nearby businesses provide a constant stream of customers throughout the day, all of whom try the patience of the restaurant's waiters while deciding which of the 200-plus items they'll order. Servers will brusquely recommend that you join everyone else in beginning the feast with a cold appetizer per the customs of Islamic Chinese cuisine. The chilly aperitifs cleanse the palate for the fiery entrées but are also delightful on their own. Eating a small bowl of beef tendon—like Jell-O in consistency and shrieking with garlic—is like slurping down frosty vermicelli noodles. Spicy beef is almost never on the menu, but it's worth asking for—served in tender slices, as cold as a Big Stick, and spicy enough to incinerate an Aztec. Hot sauce turns the chewy bits of honeycomb tripe a pale red; the results are the best use of offal outside of menudo.

There are some vegetarian choices. One noteworthy offering subsumes half an eggplant in a soy-derived brown sauce that would make a French cook envious. But Jamillah Garden and its patrons come mostly for the meat. Lamb is prepared in about 15 different styles, from a spicy Hunan-style stir-fry (that becomes butter in your mouth and might be the greatest meat dish from China since won ton soup) to a hot pot as big as a beach pail steaming with salty broth and pungent, soft mutton. Sliced curry chicken seems to have come by way of an Indian restaurant on its way to the wok, a giant mass of bird tinted yellow with a thin but walloping curry. The braised shrimp's tangerine-and-lemon tones, meanwhile, would easily be the next sweet-and-sour chicken of fast food Chinese joints if it didn't involve such an elaborate cooking process. Any meat dish should be accompanied by hand-pulled wheat noodles, thick as your belt and almost as long; Jamillah presents the noodles in portions that guarantee leftovers for your next six meals.

Location Info


Jamillah Garden

2512 Walnut Ave.
Tustin, CA 92780

Category: Restaurant > Chinese

Region: Tustin

Please don't overlook the sesame bread. "It takes 15 minutes to make," the waitress will warn you. But it'll be worth the quarter hour. It's a sesame-speckled loaf about the size of a manhole, two inches thick and as toasty as a pizza; regulars stuff meat, rice, noodles, everything into the layers inside the bread. The many slivers of green onion give the bread a verdant, sharp taste, and after nibbling on a slice, you'll never want to eat anything else again.

Jamillah Garden, located at 2512 Walnut Ave., Tustin, is open 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 4-9 p.m. (714) 838-3522. Dinner for two, $15-$30, excluding drinks. No alcohol. All major credit cards accepted.