"How are you doing, my friend?" Nesrine Omari asks virtually everyone who visits Kareem's Restaurant, the oldest restaurant in Anaheim's Little Arabia. Her warm hospitality is a secret ingredient to the success of the eatery, but the falafels are just as important. You can find her daily sporting a yellow bandana while deep-frying the next batch, the emerald-green, crispy-yet-fluffy beauties widely acknowledged as the best in Southern California.
"I love food, so I always helped my mom cook," Omari says of her upbringing in Nazareth—yep, the Nazareth where Jesus was from—while taking a rare break. Her mother prepared all kinds of Arabic food—including falafels—from scratch. When her parents enrolled young Nesrine at a Catholic school in Haifa, the meals were less savory. "The nuns used to cook for us, but the food was so terrible I used to cry," she recalls.
Omari stayed in Haifa to attend university there, getting a degree in political science and English. After graduating, she returned to Nazareth and became an English teacher—but a trip to the United States in 1987 changed everything.
She had a brother living in Chatsworth who invited her to visit for vacation. During Omari's stay, she met Mike Hawari, a man from Nazareth whom she married two years later. The two moved to San Jose to work at a steakhouse owned by Hawari's relatives, but they moved closer to Chatsworth after starting a family. Back in the Valley, Hawari would cook at weekend barbecues, whipping up fattoush salad, baba ghanoush, hummus and those falafels—and everyone would ask when the couple were going to open a restaurant.
That happened in 1995, after Hawari went to an Arabic market and picked up a newspaper that had an ad about a restaurant for sale in Anaheim. Kareem's Restaurant opened on Feb. 2, 1996, and became a pioneering business in a stretch of Brookhurst Street that eventually became the largest Middle Eastern enclave in the United States outside of the Detroit area. Years of hard work in the kitchen together earned the two praise from regulars, local elected officials and national media for their delicious Arabic food.
But then Hawari fell ill with lung cancer in 2010. Omari had to balance taking her husband to chemotherapy treatments while opening up the restaurant for lunch. "It was a hell of a time, really," she says. "I can't believe I survived." A dying Hawari told his wife to continue the restaurant without him. "Nesrine," she recalls him pleading, "don't change the recipes!"
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After her husband passed away in October 2012, Kareem's Restaurant closed for five months. "If it stayed closed, it's just like erasing 17 years of hard work, spending time with my husband," Omari says.
Now, her children—Kareem, Nora and Marwa—help to keep the family legacy alive. "I remember the first Eid after my husband passed away," she says, referring to the Muslim holiday. "I looked through the kitchen window and saw people everywhere; I got so scared." She felt overwhelmed until Kareem gave her a big, reassuring hug. Omari cooked order after order, meeting the challenge of the day.
"The secret of food is consistency and specialty," Omari says. The menu hasn't changed in 20 years and neither have the recipes, especially for the falafels. The special falafel mix is now packaged and sold to restaurants and local markets.
"Mike would be happy now," she says. "I accomplished what he wanted. We're staying here, and we're going to be bigger and better."