A Family Affair at Les Amis in Fullerton

From grandma to grandchild, the Montecristos keep this bistro humming with their Lebanese meals

Everyone gets hummus at Les Amis, even if they don’t ask for it. It’s just a thimble of the paste, accompanied by a paper basket of shatteringly crisp pita chips for dipping, but it’s a welcoming gesture by Jinan Montecristo and her husband, Juan Carlos, that makes a visit to their months-old restaurant in downtown Fullerton feel like an invitation into their home.

Their young son is at the back of the store in a corner seemingly reserved for him. There’s a stack of toys in a box, but today, he’s busy with coloring books. Every once in a while, Juan Carlos checks on him, embraces the boy, tousles his hair, tells him to be good. The kid nods and continues coloring.

Around the corner in the kitchen, a few employees help Jinan and her mother, Joyce Aboulhosn, prepare the food. No matter the order, meals are packaged in to-go containers. Those who dine in get plastic forks. There are no soup bowls, just clear-plastic tubs. Decide to take the rest of your babaghanoush home? Simply ask for the lid. Request the falafel in a platter instead of a sandwich wrap, and it’s served in a Styrofoam clam shell. But don’t find such servingware an affront, an indicator of cheapness or a lackadaisical approach—the Montecristos fill each container with the care of a Japanese bento box. An artful assortment of pickled cornichons, some beet-red sticks of pickled turnip, blindingly tart peppers and fresh radishes are arranged carefully around the entrée—and among the constants at Les Amis, including Juan Carlos’ hospitality, the thump-thumping of misplaced techno music and the sparseness of the dining room.

Wrap duo: Tina Montecristo (left) and mom Joyce Aboulhosn
Todd Barnes
Wrap duo: Tina Montecristo (left) and mom Joyce Aboulhosn
Todd Barnes

There are three tables and only a handful of chairs to go around. Most customers who choose to dine in actually dine outside, claiming the sole patio table. It’s also the only area where they can light up hookahs without stinking up the joint or breaking any laws. But in the short time Les Amis has operated, it has become what the Montecristos intended: a takeout spot for quick, cheap, freshly made shawerma wraps, sustenance for the hordes of Fullerton College students in between classes. The chicken shawerma reeks of the slathered garlic paste called toum, both wrapped drum-tight inside warmed pita bread and torpedo-long—if you see Hornets buying more Tic-Tacs than usual, you know the source. Those who insist on a shawerma should do the chicken before the steak, usually a little gristly and employing the tamer tahini sauce instead of that wonderful, wasabi-strength toum. Better still, order the soujouk, the tangy Armenian sausage whose destiny inside a pita-wrapped sandwich is inevitable and overdue.

The Montecristos put such care and effort into each meal that some require extra attention to properly savor. Consider the kafta, petite hand-formed ground-lamb patties. Hidden inside a wrap, eaters consume them in haste; only on a platter can one properly appreciate their greatness. Notice how each one crumbles softly like a loosely packed, herb-infused burger. Relish how each is just cooked through, with a hint of pink in the middle and a caramelized char on the edges lending a special sweetness. Each patty is sized exactly the right width to stuff into the pocket of a quartered pita. Spoon dollops of yogurt over it; add a few diced onions, tomato and sumac; and enjoy finger food for the gods.

There are other meals, of course. A cheese-and-veggie appetizer platter should precede a leisurely meal. Nibble on three kinds of Mediterranean cheese, all mild and milky, existing in curls and rectangular sticks, differing in texture from the firm to the grainy. Cleansing morsels of cured Moroccan and green olives, cucumber, and sliced tomato should follow. Use tomato and cucumber again to scoop labneh, another appetizer in which a soft cheese as smooth as clotted cream is swirled with a stream of good olive oil. Vegetarians and other meat-abstainers can have the labneh as a wrap or, better yet, indulge in a bowl of foul. Pronounced “fool,” this stew of fava and garbanzo beans is the morning gruel in Beirut—a workingman’s breakfast often served out of big pots and ladled as a steaming bowl of good-for-you starch, garlic and citrusy pep. Les Amis’ supply runs out quickly, so calling ahead to reserve a helping is always advisable.

Another tip: Check the restaurant’s Facebook page before coming on a weekday. On it, there’s a “culture special” of the day, an ever-changing meal sold for $6.95—a low toll even without the included soft drink and tabbouleh salad. More than any other reason—more than the chicken shawerma or the kafta—this is why a visit to Les Amis is a must. As with any home-cooked dinner, the “culture special” can be as elaborate as a rotisserie chicken, as homey as sheik el mehshi (fried eggplant stuffed with sautéed ground beef), or as simple as spinach cooked with beef over basmati rice. Whatever it is, it’s also what the Montecristos’ son will probably be eating for his supper . . . once he’s done coloring.

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