Photo by Jack GouldHead down to Anaheim, on Brookhurst Street between La Palma and Katella, and you're likely to see Somali refugees shopping alongside Persian princesses in the various jewelry stores, supermarkets and cafés that cater to Anaheim's emerging Middle Eastern/Islamic community. For those of us who don't read Farsi, the best and tastiest way to experience "Little Gaza" (as the area is popularly known) is to try the multitude of restaurants located on Brookhurst and adjacent streets.
The northernmost restaurant in the Little Gaza area is Hatam, which serves Persian cuisine. The main difference for me between Persian and Arabic food is that Persian food is a bit richer in texture, and Hatam's offerings are no exception. Try the lamb shank ($9.99), a huge leg of lamb complete with bone marrow and fat. It's served as a stew, but feel free to grab the shank and suck the marrow out of the bone. The meat rivals Jell-O for tenderness. Included with the lamb shank are lima beans and two types of rice: basmati and dill (grayish rice cooked with what appears to be tiny leaves.)
For specifically Islamic dishes, go to Bar BQ King. The sons of Ishmael have a theological method of preparing food, and Bar BQ King advertises itself as a halal—meat prepared according to Koranic guidelines—restaurant. True to its name, it specializes in meat dishes. My favorite is the beef shawerma ($6.99), a gigantic portion of marinated slices grilled with myriad spices. The beef is cooked to that perfect netherworld between rare and well done. The meal comes with rice and shirazi salad, a parsley/tomato/onion mix that lends color to an otherwise all-brown meal.
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The oldest Middle Eastern restaurant in the area is Ali Baba Restaurant, serving Arabic and Persian food since 1975. It is also the only eatery in Little Gaza named after a Middle Eastern signifier. For those of you who like your meat on sticks, order the jujeh kebab ($8.99), chicken kebabs surrounded by mounds of basmati rice. The slightly bland rice serves as a good counterpart to the succulent chicken, pepper and onion pieces. The dessert counter in the center of the restaurant is perpetually full of the sweet pastry baklava. Succumb to temptation!
Unlike most restaurants in Little Gaza, Zankou Chicken—an Armenian take on poultry—is a fast-food joint. Although non-poultry products are available, eschewing chicken here is like going to Laguna Beach without going to the beach. The half-chicken plate ($5.45) is the median between the small quarter chicken and the digestive-track-perforating whole chicken meal. It contains a half-chicken, lavender pickles that are more tart than sour, hummus, Zankou's rightfully famous garlic sauce, and two pieces of pita bread. The chicken itself is cooked piping hot with a crisp golden skin that puts every other chicken skin I've eaten to shame.
Wherever you eat, make sure to order hummus as an appetizer. Hummus—a paste made from garbanzo beans—is served everywhere chilled and cheap (usually between $2 and $4.) Rip the always-provided pita bread into shreds and use it to scoop up the goop.
HATAM, 1112 N. BROOKHURST ST., ANAHEIM, (714) 991-6060. OPEN MON.-SUN., 11 A.M.-10 P.M.; BAR BQ KING, 1785 W. LINCOLN ST., ANAHEIM, (714) 535-0047. OPEN MON.-SUN., 10 A.M.-MIDNIGHT; ALI BABA RESTAURANT, 100 S. BROOKHURST ST., ANAHEIM, (714) 774-5632. OPEN MON.-SUN., 10 A.M.-10 P.M.; ZANKOU CHICKEN, 2424 W. BALL RD., STES. S & T, ANAHEIM, (714) 229-2060. OPEN MON.-SUN., 10 A.M.-10 P.M.