I have met hundreds of chefs in my decade reviewing Orange County restaurants, and few were more unassuming, more humble, more talented than Mike Hawari. With his wife Nancy, they opened up Kareem's Restaurant in Anaheim in the 1990s, back in the days when it was one of just a few Middle Eastern-themed businesses on Brookhurst Street. Today, of course, that area is the bustling Little Arabia enclave and features dozens of restaurants, yet Kareem's is still acknowledged as the makers of the best falafels on earth, perfectly fried orbs with a fluffy emerald center--why, we just named their falafel sandwich the best sandwich, period, in OC this year.
Today, Little Arabia is in mourning and shock with the news that Mike has passed away due to lung cancer.
That's how unassuming Mike was: few even knew Mike had cancer until a week ago, when his family put a message on Facebook urging prayers for his well-being. Funeral arrangements are pending and will be announced on Kareem's page.
As great as Mike's food was--really extraordinary, from tried-and-true kabobs to Palestinian rarities like fatteh, which remains one of the best breakfast dishes in Orange County--whenever I thought of him, I always remembered his smile, one as wide and looping as the Fertile Crescent, a smile of joy, a genuine smile provoked by the happiness he felt serving customers, old and new. I can't even remember how many people I sent his way, all raving afterwards not just about the food but also Mike's gentle-giant approach to everything.
Damn. I haven't been to Kareem's in about a year--that's what happens when you always have to push onward toward the next place. But I always told my friends who haunted Kareem's to send my regards to Mike and Nancy, and they'd always send salutations back from the two to return sooner rather than later, for my regular falafel sandwich washed down with a can of Vimto. I was actually planning to take a friend in the coming weeks--I hope I still can, but now, I'll never be able to say hi to Mike again.
Rest in piece, Mike. My thoughts and prayers to you and your children, Nancy. And for everyone else, I leave you with Mike's appearance on KNBC-TV Channel 4 a couple of years ago, which Mike always called the highlight of his career. A falafel maker, on television! That's how extraordinary Mike was.
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