Photo by Shannon SibayanAl Amir Bakery in Anaheim's Little Arabia enclave attracts all sorts of eaters, but it works best as an old-style pizzeria, a place where young people step in for a quick bite and flirt. And you get them all—and more—here: Arab B-boys in white hats and untucked long-sleeved shirts crunking Usher from their Lincoln Navigators; little boys and girls darting around their hijab-bedecked mommy, fighting over the last drops of dough, the Middle Eastern yogurt drink; students poring over textbooks, waiting for their study buddy; men in suits stopping in for a snack before walking across the way to smoke at one of the shopping plaza's two hookah lounges.
There's not much yet in the way of lean-to counters and jukeboxes, but it's no big deal: Al Amir's primary draw is its extraordinary sphihas, what clueless food critics—me—describe as Lebanese pizza. In my defense, sphihas appearlike New York-style pies, thanks to their thin, toasty, wonderfully crunchy crust. And the preparation is identical: cooks roll flat a ball of pita-bread flour in the backroom kitchen, layer it with the ingredients of your choice, and then shove the proto-sphiha into the small brick oven near the cash register. It's ready in about four minutes.
Sphihas are about all Al Amir produces—no baklava, no hummus, no grape leaves and just one type of sandwich stuffed with lettuce, tomatoes, charred beef and nutty tahini sauce. Unlike so many pizzas, though, the flavors in these sphihas are intense and quite rare—this is only the second sphiha shop in the county after the esteemed Al-Sanabel Bakery. The cheese is Akawi, a slightly tough Palestinian strain that confuses at first with a salty coating but eventually reveals a luscious, sweet milk flavor inside your mouth. You can eat an all-Akawi sphiha, but it's best when combined with meats—say, soujouk, the spicy beef sausage that's the pepperoni of the Middle East, or the tart minced-meat spread lahmbaajin. Vegetarians can relish a sphiha sprinkled with zaatar, a zesty pesto of thyme with olive oil and sesame seeds that will pucker your palate. And there are more sphihas—seven in total. They're the size of an individual pizza, yet impossibly cheap—the most expensive tops out at $4.50, while a fresh spinach sphiha is an obscene 99 cents. No sales tax!