A couple of years ago, it was Asian-run Internet cafés; nowadays, Middle Eastern hookah bars are the ethnic gathering spot that freaks out city officials to the point of Big Brother. The Santa Ana City Council recently banned such businesses from their city, arguing hookah bars are detrimental to the city's quality of life. It's their loss of tax revenue—may hookah bars continue to open in Anaheim's Little Arabia and match the charms of JANNA CAFE.
I don't smoke, so I can't offer a review of the quality of scented tobaccos that Janna Cafe offers. But I can say that the restaurant is best experienced at night, when big-screen televisions glow with Lebanese variety shows and seemingly every table argues the night away while passing around a communal hose from which they make the hookah bubble. Most of the tables snack on such Middle Eastern standards as falafel, pickled turnips, juicy kebabs and grape leaves, with quickly emptying baskets of pita bread, strips of which are run through hummus and babaghanoush spreads. Janna Cafe at night is an electric atmosphere, and even a bit weird—dig the framed poster in the outside seating area of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe pulled over by a cop!
But the main reason to visit Janna Cafe is the sandwiches—and not the pita kind you can find in just about every veggie-friendly restaurant. Janna (which means "paradise" in Arabic) is one of the few places in Orange County that specializes in Lebanese hoagies—9-inchers comparable to Philly cheese steaks and bánh mís. Janna's cooks prepare French bread with pickles, tomatoes and garlic sauce—sometimes even hummus—along with your meat choice, then place the mass under a sandwich press until the garlic sauce seeps into everything while the crust becomes crunchy even as the dough remains chewy. Once ready, the sandwich gets wrapped in foil, the better to keep everything manageable lest it spill across the table.
These Lebanese sandwiches (and if someone knows their proper name, please write in!) are one of OC's true delights: substantial yet light, overwhelming with flavor but nuanced—delicious. The garlic sauce sears; the pickles add an acidic counterbalance. And the meats! I like sojouk (a spicy Armenian sausage) because its fried flavor reminds me of chorizo, but the sour makanek charms as well. A beef- or chicken-kebab sandwich is also delicious, the chunks blackened enough so you can taste smoke, but still retaining their juice. Order them on the go, and praise Allah that Anaheim has enough foresight to merely regulate hookah bars instead of foolishly banning them. Your loss, Papi Pulido!
JANNA CAFE, 2778 W. BALL RD., ANAHEIM, (714) 527-1413.