Anyone who thinks the cuisine of the Middle East is uniformly healthy—the freshness of tabbouleh, the lightness of hummus and babaghanoush, the vegetarian delight that is a falafel—has never tried Egyptian food, a culinary tradition built on gargantuan plates, communal eating and a love of fried stuff. Most emblematic of this is the koshari at Al-Omda Egyptian Cafe in the far reaches of Little Arabia in Garden Grove. Our own Yasmin Nouh (who's of partial Egyptian descent) calls it Egyptian lasagna, and she's almost right—in addition to mountains of pasta and lentils drowned by tomato sauce, there is a blizzard of fried onions, so many that you'll pause to remind yourself that you're at the county's second Egyptian restaurant and not a greasy spoon. But koshari's crowning achievement is its accompanying sauce: half-vinaigrette, half-garlic, all about the pungent punch that ties all of the koshari's parts together. You could share the dish, but you're already fat, so pass it along the table just as everyone else is doing, fighting over every last strand and lentil.
Al-Omda ("the mayor" in Egyptian Arabic) is a gem of a place, a tiny spot that just debuted an outside hookah area already patronized by Arab-Americans of various nationalities and religions, all united under the promise of food almost impossible to find in Southern California. An order of tahmaya is the usual starter—what we'd call falafels, but made with fava beans and onions, topped with sesame seeds, and served alongside tahini. It's the tart sophisticate to falafel's earthy country cousin, and while most tables get an order, you can also eat them inside a pita as a sandwich. But a much better sandwich choice is the hawawash, a fried flatbread stuffed with ground beef, peppers and even more onions (what's with the Egyptian love affair with onions?). Although the presentation is a bit floppier than I'd like, the combo of grease, spice and the sweetened meat inside will make you forget shawerma sandwiches ever existed (although they're here as well, and very good). Bring a bigger crowd, and order the roasted duck, rabbit or pigeon stuffed with rice, all served family-style and with a sauce prepared from the bitter molokhaya leaf.
The restaurant is still adjusting to the big time—one day, I showed up for lunch only to see Al-Omda completely emptied out. I thought it was closing for good, but it turned out the place was being remodeled, with one addition being a gorgeous mural of a literal oasis in the shadow of the Pyramids, as apt a metaphor for Al-Omda as any.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
This column appeared in print as "Eat Like an Egyptian."