Anaheim's Little Arabia neighborhood has a slew of hookah lounges, each favored by a certain segment of the county's vast Middle Eastern/Muslim community. But it's only at Nubia Cafe that the communities merge, where young men curse the Lakers' ineptitude this season as the game broadcasts on the flat-screen television, where entrepreneurs share business plans with associates, where elderly men read Arabic-language publications in peace, where women—in hijabs and not—laugh over fruit shakes and a game of cards called tarneeb that's similar to whist and played by seemingly every other table-of-four in the place.
Nubia Cafe is Orange County at its finest, located in a strip mall next to a pupusería; it's a place that rocks just as much as Rick's in Casablanca. There's a palpable excitement upon entering, from the bold, Toulouse-Lautrec-meets-Cairo murals on the wall to the smell and haze of the hookahs fired up at every table. And unlike most of the hookah lounges in Orange County, Nubia doesn't dismiss the food options as throwaways; here's an ambitious menu equally split between Lebanese and Jordanian rarities, with a couple of Egyptian favorites thrown in. It sells a slew of manakeesh (the flatbreads sometimes called sphihas and universally translated in English as Middle Eastern pizzas). Also available are Lebanese subs, sandwiches served on a pressed, crackly baguette, steaming and reeking of garlic sauce worthy of a mojo de ajo. Although you can order individual entrées, always start with an order of araies, what my colleague Gabriel San Román referred to as an Arabic quesadilla: pita bread split open, stuffed with salty cheese, placed on the grill so the pita toasts and the cheese melts, then cut into slices and served alongside labneh, hummus and a cucumber salad. It's as gooey and filling as anything a mami can whip up in the morning.
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The surprises never stop here, culinarily. For dessert, I recently asked for sahlab, expecting some type of pastry or pudding; instead, I received a pint glass of thick, warm milk sweetened with pistachios, golden raisins and the flour it's named for, made from the roots of an orchid—the best milkshake you'll taste all year. But the coolest thing about this place? The Latino men who go around taking orders and replacing the coals from the hookahs speak English with an Arabic accent. Orange County at its finest.