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By Edwin Goei
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.
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.