Barbonzai's Middle Eastern Food in Lake Forest Is So Good, It Doesn't Need Gimmicks
Labne and wrap and fresh pita, oh my!
Bad photo by the Mexican
Barbonzai is so goddamn cute that I almost walked out the first time I visited. Menu items are streamlined into three categories—bowls, wraps and "flatbreadz"—and there's a mini buffet where happy millennials construct your order, Chipotle-style. The design is streamlined; the color scheme, bright. And this Lebanese shopping-plaza spot even has a mascot—Bonzo, a mustachioed chickpea descended from "Garbanzians"—with his own lengthy origin story and hashtag (#thebonzocode).
It's nearly kawaii here, which usually indicates overcompensating for bad food. But don't let the flash fool you: Barbonzai is not only legit Middle Eastern food, but it's also spectacular. You know a spot is great when it offers four types of falafels (all delicious and baked) and gives you pita bread that almost floats away because of all the steam inside, so fresh out of the oven it is. That bread becomes the base for everything: The "flatbreadz" are really manakeesh, and while there's an Americanized version of the pizza-like flabread with egg and bacon, Barbonzai doesn't shy away from the Levant—the zaatar is spiced just right, and the cheese blend includes not only mozzarella, but also akawi and kaval, traditional Lebanese fromages that lend a gorgeous tang. The pita also stars in the wraps, which are shaped like burritos but strictly traditional: zaatar, labneh or halloumi, a creamy Cypriot cheese you barely see in Little Arabia, let alone Lake Forest. And while one dessert wrap offers Nutella (you can never go wrong with Nutella), another is Lebanese fig jam and is one of the most surprisingly decadent things I've had in a while—walnuts, jam and honey, a triptych of sweet power not experienced since Destiny's Child.
I get Barbonzai's marketing, but I'd point out that OC isn't as ignorant of Lebanese food as folks might expect. Lake Forest, in particular, has hosted more than a few great Middle Eastern places for years. And when I went in and started chatting up the owner's son, both he and his father were impressed at how much I knew about the cuisine. OC loves Middle Eastern cuisine, and y'all have amazing food, guys: No need to have a cute garbanzo gimmick, you know?
Barbonzai, 24301 Muirlands Blvd., Lake Forest, (949) 446-8322; www.barbonzai.com.
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