Papa Hassan's Has a Brand-New Bag
Do you remember your first shawerma? I do. It was 15, maybe 20 years ago. As with a hazy memory of a movie in which I can recall the actors but not the plot, I only remembered where I had it: Papa Hassan's in Orange, the place where so many Orange Countians had their first taste of hummus and kebabs. I recall walking up to the shack on Glassell Street, ordering from a window and eating the shawerma right there on the sidewalk. That location no longer exists. After it suffered a devastating fire in 2010 and the building was sold to Chapman University, owner Mustafa Hassan  decided it was time to start over after nearly 35 years in business.
Papa Hassan's has re-emerged on Brookhurst Street, Middle Eastern comfort food lost in a vast jungle of regional restaurants in Anaheim's Little Arabia. Squeezed in tight between a halal Sizzler and a hookah store, the location is akin to Harry Potter's Platform nine and three-quarters—you have to know it's there. To me, visiting the new place felt as though I were meeting up with an old friend. At first, I didn't recognize him. The new restaurant—open since 2011—looks nothing like the old one; it's now more of a fast-casual than a full-service place. But once I bit into the shawerma, it's as though I was right back on that Old Towne Orange sidewalk.
The tightly swaddled cylinder weighed as heavy as a shotput in my hand. But as I ate, peeling back the paper as my bites progressed, I realized why I liked it so much: The shawerma operates on the same wavelength as an In-N-Out burger. Just as at In-N-Out, Papa Hassan's knows you need a healthy dose of garden-fresh veggies to answer the protein. The result is a very balanced wrap—as refreshing as it is filling. There's the shrill juiciness of tomato, the spicy-but-sweet hits of onion complementing the steady hum of beef in the background. Though I tasted hints of mint and tahini instead of Thousand Island, I found myself lapping up the leftover drippings from its wrapping as though I just finished a Double-Double.
What I don't remember was how steak-like the meat is. Though Papa Hassan's may shave the shawerma from a spinning cone of beef and lamb as you'll find elsewhere, the meat here chews as though it were cut directly from a piece of sirloin. Also new to me: the service. Both the young woman in a hijab and her co-worker, an older man with close-cropped hair, couldn't have been warmer. During both trips I made, they offered me a thimble of the house hot sauce—an indispensable condiment that shouldn't be ignored or underestimated. The paste, which has the thick consistency of Indonesian sambal, burned with the fierceness of Tapatío and a smoky finish, as though the peppers involved were roasted before being pulverized.
It can be slathered on everything, but you should especially use it on the chicken, a rotisserie bird not unlike the ones at Zankou. If you have at least three other people with you, you want the whole hen: served in two halves, ready to be drawn and quartered with a bronzed skin so well-rendered that it breaks off in literal shards. The meat is juicy where it isn't crispy, and when you dab a little of that chile paste, you forget all about that much-lauded garlic sauce Zankou serves with its fowl.
When you overdo it with the chile paste—and you will—you'll want the lebni, a cooling bowl of yogurt with pieces of cucumber and peppermint you scoop up with torn pita bread. You also want the falafels—dense, craggly balls that can be had in a wrap, in a sort-of-salad with sides of tahini and hummus, or even in a burger. But if you're going to have a real dinner, opt for the communal mound of food called the Beiruti feast: a grand sampler platter set over fries with two skewers each of the chicken, beef and kafta kebabs. The latter is especially good. Also included: a bowl of hummus, a watery baba ganoush, diced roasted tomatoes and onions, and scattering of fried-and-grilled pita-bread triangles you use like chips. Before this, start your meal with dolmas so aggressively sour they made my cheeks hurt or the batata harra, fried potatoes blasted with a hot paste redolent of garlic and red pepper seeds.
End with the dessert called "Heaven." It's actually aish al saraya, a thrilling chilled Lebanese bread pudding layered with custard, dripping with the sweetness of honey and topped with whipped cream—one of the best things I've tasted this year. Decades from now, after I've ordered it from every place that offers it, I'll remember where I had it first: here at the new Papa Hassan's.
 The owner's name was given incorrectly in the original. Mahmoud Haidar owned the restaurant with his brother, Mustafa Hassan, but now only Hassan owns it.
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