I worried when the Olives Branch in San Juan Capistrano announced it was opening a fast-casual spot in Irvine. The Lebanese restaurant offers the best Middle Eastern food in South County because it doesn't dumb down the menu for anyone. Instead, it doubles down on the regionalism: It's the only spot in OC I know to highlight sojouk and ma'anek (Armenian and Lebanese sausages) as a side. But now, it wanted to open a junior location in a city more accustomed to Persian and Indian food?
As I walked in, I thought my fears were confirmed. It resembled too many "concept" restaurants nowadays that try to be the Chipotle of their cuisine: choose a dish (pita, platter or something called the pita-tada—more on that in a bit), a protein, toppings, a spread and a sauce. All that was missing was an option to make everything a bowl. But Olives Branch's roots peeked through. The Tripoli Wrap promised kafta kebabs; an Aley Plate, named after the Lebanese city, contained fasolia, delicious red beans stewed so they taste like a great vegetarian chili. I ordered the spicy lebne, just to see how bland (but still good—lebne is never bad) it would be, but I was soon ecstatic to find myself sipping extra-hard on Olives Branch Express' fabulous mint lemonade because of the lebne's slight fire.
But I was sold forever on this place after ordering the pita-tada. I couldn't decipher it at first, figuring that "tada" was Arabic for something yummy. I still didn't get the clue when the owner told the customer who followed me that the dish featured a fried pita topped with stuff. But when the owner delivered the finished product to me, I finally figured it out: "pita-tada" was a portmanteau of pita and tostada—a Lebanese tostada? I expected a by-committee meal created just to get Instagram likes, and then I ate it: luscious chicken shawarma, tart pickles and a light toum atop a pita transformed into a dense, crunchy, earthy delight. Throw away your taco salads, and indulge in the greatest alliance of Mexican and Middle Eastern food since al pastor.
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Olives Branch Express, 5365-K Alton Pkwy., Irvine, (949) 373-5633.