Jasmine Mediterranean Restaurant in Anaheim is far from the confines of Little Arabia, in a section of the city I remember more for the K-Mart and no-tell motel just down Lincoln Avenue than its eateries. The restaurant's clientele does include some Arabs, but consists mostly of the neighborhood's residents—Filipinos, Latinos, Samoans and plain ol' gabachos. The owners mitigate some of the flavors as a result—the toum, for instance, isn't as fierce as the garlic paste in other local Middle Eastern restaurants, while the shawarma is as wonderfully dense as al pastor meat as any local taquería—and most of the offerings hew to the tried-and-true kebab-pita-sandwich-hummus menu at the county's Arabic restaurants. But Jasmine is also one of the few places in Southern California that specializes in Syrian cuisine, and it's these dishes that make it worthy of a Malcolm Gladwell presentation.
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The specials aren't many, given most of OC's Levantine community is Lebanese and Jordanian, but they're promoted instead of hidden. Primary among them is the tray on the counter filled with mini-disks called fatayers, which will remind the savvier among you of a sphiha (a pita topped with meats and veggies), except these are hand-sized and eaten by folding them: Arabic crispy tacos. The toppings range from a tart pomegranate paste to another in which ground beef and almond slivers fight for your palate; they're spectacular when served fresh, but merely great when reheated, as the bread part tends to harden a bit too much. Consistently outstanding, on the other hand, is the kibbeh, a type of meat falafel that finds the cooks mixing bulgur wheat with ground beef, then frying the results. The outer shell becomes as crunchy as a churro, while the inside remains fluffy, juicy, redolent of the beef, as well as pine nuts and a healthy dose of Aleppo peppers that piques the tongue.
The most surprising dish here, though, is the orange rice pudding. It's an unadulterated shock of citrus—cooling, refreshing, akin to an orange sherbert, as bright as a traffic cone, almost as jolting as the legendary sholeh zard (saffron rice pudding) of Iran, with the exception that I can never seem to find the rice grains in the dessert. It doesn't matter; it's a unique dessert and reason enough to visit Jasmine, this oasis in the Anaheim desert—clichéd ending! Let's try again: Go to Jasmine, and scarf down badass grub. That's more like it!
This column appeared in print as "The Syrian Specials."