Photo by Tenaya HillsOwners Mike and Nancy Hawari are the sole employees of Kareem's Restaurant, and the waiters/cooks/hosts coddle their customers from entrance to exit with a smile rounder than a pregnant woman's belly. The Hawaris have run Kareem's for nine years in their nook of Anaheim's Little Gaza. It's the smallest restaurant in the enclave, about the size of a Fountain Valley living room with an outside table always occupied by chess-playing elders. These patrons, like so many other Middle Eastern expats, visit Kareem's three times a day, taking comfort in one of the few Orange County Middle Eastern restaurants to offer distinctive breakfasts, lunches and dinners.
Breakfast:The best jolt to meet the sun is scrambled eggs, and at Kareem's, scrambled eggs means shakshouka—greasy-good yolks tinted with tomato sauce, sautéed with bell peppers and meat, and sifted with thunderous coriander powder. Kareem's provides eating utensils, but join the regulars in ripping chunks from the wickers of steaming pita bread and using the pita spoon to pinch up some portions of the shakshouka. Don't forget to dunk the bite-sized tidbit into a searing green relish that shames the habañero chile. Lunch:Breakfast attracts a sizable crowd, but Kareem's during lunchtime is as hectic as an Iraqi protest. Seating arrangements quickly turn to standing-room-only as the hurried and hungry wait for about three minutes for the Hawaris to whip up one of Kareem's six distinctive pita sandwiches.
My, those pita sandwiches! Non-Middle Easterners think of the pita as limited to falafel, meat and maybe hummus, and most Middle Eastern sandwich shops are content to stuff flatbread with limpid veggies and tahini sauce that reeks of glue. The Hawaris, however, are pita magicians. Take—and eat—the labneh pita, for instance. Labneh is a sort of dairy spread reminiscent of minty Philadelphia cream cheese, a cool, smooth substance that most restaurants overwhelm with meat and lettuce. At Kareem's, the only accompaniments to the labneh sandwich are rectangular hunks of cucumber; the combination is the bagel of the Fertile Crescent.
Similar unions sparkle in the rest of Kareem's pitas. Meats—lamb brain and liver, chicken and beef kabobs—feature pickles inside but not turnips; Kareem's fabulous falafels—a crunchy, chocolate-brown exterior encasing a soft-as-marshmallow, grass-green interior, not oily at all—come sweating with a nutty sesame sauce. Pickles as big as a stapler accompany each sandwich, along with tiny fluorescent-yellow peppers that have the kick of a camel.
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Dinner: Lunch is an on-the-go option at Kareem's, but dinner is strictly a sit-down affair. Usually Mike but sometimes Nancy will set down some plates, a side of lavender-colored pickled turnips and a piping-hot tea that will help dissipate the sweltering weather outside. The only menu looms over customers on a marquee above the ordering counter, its pistachio-green background creating the illusion that the bulleted listings float like a hologram. Decorations consist of faux vines snaking around the soda cooler and a beautiful painting of Mary's Well at Nazareth, residents untouched by pain.
Dinners are the weakest meals here—just the standard rice-and-kabob platters that can be found in Middle Eastern restaurants from Mecca to Modesto. So, you're going to order the hummus with meat and pine nuts instead, a specialty of the Hawaris' Lebanon.
Kareem's hummus by itself is great, chilled with perfect pools of olive oil in the center and enough chili powder sprinkled around to open up the taste buds but not the sweat glands. But the Hawaris throw in some pine nuts, each containing a dense, gritty sweetness that transcends its puny size. They then stud the mix with grilled beef that's like carne asada in its tender char. Hummus with pine nuts and meat isn't so much eaten as meditated upon, the perfect excuse to get your fingers sticky enough to lick. If you choose to do that, Mike and Nancy will roll their eyes and trot out the napkins—they've seen this before.
Kareem's Restaurant, located at 1208 S. Brookhurst St., Anaheim, is open Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-3 p.m. (714) 778-6829. Breakfast/lunch/dinner for two, $4-$16, excluding drinks. No alcohol. Cash only.