In the Anaheim's Little Arabia district, a series of Lebanese bakeries are cropping up. While some sell desserts, these bakeries are better known for savories, specifically manakeesh, the flatbread "pizzas" of the Levant.
These breads, also called sphiha, are quite possibly the best lunch bargain in town, and the most unknown (unless you read Gustavo's reviews); when I stopped in and asked what the writing above the menu meant, I was met with some surprise when I admitted to knowing almost no Arabic. Manakeesh are $2-$3 each. Throw in a glass of tea, soda or tahn (the salty yoghurt drink that grows on you) and a piece of baklava and you've got a $5 lunch that beats the stuffing out of any fast-food drive-through.
A mankousheh is a round of flat dough, typically about 9 or 10 inches in diameter, topped with anything from spice mixtures to cheese to ground meat paste with a couple of lashes of pomegranate molasses, then baked in a hot oven until the bread bakes. They're made to order, and from order to presentation is typically only a few minutes; these are truly flat flatbreads.
The only question is, which one should you pick? This week's Dueling Dishes features the manakeesh from Al-Amir Bakery and Forn al-Hara. I'd have included al-Sanabel had budget allowed.
The same order from both places, then: a mankousheh with white cheese and zaatar (a spice blend of dried thyme, oregano, sesame seeds, sumac and salt), one with kafta (a meat paste made with beef, onions, parsley and pine nuts) and one with soujouk (a spicy beef sausage).
After a fire burned down the original Al-Amir, the owners decided it would be cheaper to rent different premises. They've moved to the plaza on the northwest corner of Brookhurst St. and Ball Rd., near a Filipino restaurant. The new digs are modern, bright, clean and inviting. All they sell is flatbreads and things related to flatbreads, singly or by the dozen. The kitchen is huge and open to the restaurant, so you can see them sliding round after round of tempting flatbread into the gas-fired ovens.
The cheese and zaatar at Al-Amir is quite possibly the most perfect pizza-type object ever to come out of an oven. Not overly greasy, with a great tender bite to the cheese and a crust that sings New York pizza to my New Jersey-bred brain. The zaatar is perfect, herbal and slightly lemony.
The kafta, however, was not a success; though the same great crust was in evidence, the meat was dried out, crumbled off the dough and lacked the punch of onions that makes kafta the crown prince of meatloaves, despite the presence of large chunks of onion in the meat.
Mankousheh bi soujouk was spicy and had a dark paprika overlay to it; this needed the tomatoes served with it to cut the strong flavor. With the tomato added, it was a more substantial bite. The soujouk is a harder paste than the kafta, but yet the mankousheh was softer. I suspect there are some hot spots in the oven.
Forn al-Hara is in a renascent shopping plaza on Brookhurst just north of Orange Ave., just north of the den of falafel-ly doom that is Sahara. It started out life as a pastry shop, selling permutations of ground nuts, flaky phyllo dough and honey, but now offers a wide variety of sphiha and manakeesh. You'll be greeted enthusiastically, and next to the cash register is tea: $1 for a bag of surprisingly good black or green tea, plus a samovar of hot water, some beautiful fresh peppermint and sugar. Delicious.
The zaatar and cheese smelled fantastic coming out of the oven; unfortunately, the bread was overcooked. The cheese shrank back and the zaatar burned a little bit; the crust was baked to cracker-like crunch on one side. Still, the taste was quite good. The zaatar seemed heavier on the thyme at Forn al-Hara; I could just be making it up, though.
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The kafta was surprisingly good. Kefta is essentially Lebanese meatloaf, with parsley and onions and pine nuts. It's not a strongly flavored dish, but this was done just right, with enough punch in the meat to give the bites a bit of zing. Kefta wouldn't travel well; the flavors became more muted as the mankousheh cooled, but right out of the oven it was outstanding.
The soujouk tasted slightly spicy, slightly smoky and very beefy; the only issue was uneven layering. A quick squeeze of lemon added a sour tang that even sumac couldn't match and completed the dish. I suspect that soujouk does not willingly form a paste, which caused construction issues.
Which is better? A hard call. The cheese and zaatar, which sings its siren song in my dreams, was far superior at Al-Amir. The soujouk was about even, and the kafta was far superior at Forn al-Hara. A split decision, which means that the more immediate availability of dessert will carry the day; for that, Forn al-Hara wins.
Al-Amir Bakery, 2281 W. Ball Rd., Anaheim; 714-535-0973.
Forn al-Hara, 512 S. Brookhurst St., Anaheim; 714-758-3777.