Far from the friendly confines of Little Arabia, CHAM-YA serves its Middle Eastern dishes from the back of an industrial park lost amidst an area of industrial parks. It's one of the strangest restaurant locales I've encountered—stranger than the trunk of a car, even. The dining room feels like it housed a dental office a week ago, and Cham-Ya's façade suggests the type of smelly deli reviled by thousands of county industrial-park drones. But the haphazard look is expected, even understood. Cham-Ya's owners operated a catering business for years and rented this property three months ago to expand their operations. Loyal customers insisted they open a takeout stand, so the owners improvised with what they had.
Looks don't matter here. Cham-Ya is one of the few OC restaurants to specialize in Syrian cuisine: Middle Eastern mainstays such as beef and garlic-rubbed rotisserie chicken are available alongside such obscure favorites as yalanje (similar to dolmas, but better, since they contain marinated chicken and lemon zest) and boraks, bite-sized mini-pies stuffed with spinach or cheese that will replace your Egg McMuffin fix for good. You'll recognize the chicken shawerma and falafel pita sandwiches, but not so much those featuring halloumi (a salty goat's cheese) and basturma, thinly sliced petals of dry-cured beef that's half-proscuitto, half-jerky, all yummy.
But the best dish is offered only during the weekends—and only for breakfast: foual (pronounced "fool"), an extraordinarily simple bowl of garbanzo and fava beans, lemon juice, olive oil, cooked tomatoes, and a dash of sumac. Cham-Ya's owner says this is the national Syrian breakfast, and just one bite explains the love. Foual uses olive oil as a broth rather than a mere garnish, drawing out the earthy sweetness of the garbanzos and favas until the mixture's as tasty as porridge. Combined with the juiciness of the tomato slices and the lemon's tartness, the legume mush becomes slightly tart—and the sumac adds spice to open your palate, but not overwhelm its co-stars. Ignore the cutlery, and devour the foual as they do in Damascus: with slices torn from the basket of steaming, fluffy pita bread.
Cham-Ya only offers a couple of dishes for restaurant patrons—most of the offerings are available only on the catering menu, where even more rarities await. But to try those, you must order in bulk, attend someone's Arabic wedding, or visit so often that Cham-Ya earns enough money to further expand its restaurant. Or do all three!