Over the weekend, I attended an art reception where the featured snacks were hummus and falafels. I still remember the days where the two (with tabbouli, natch) were staples of any left-of-center gathering, placed by conscious hosts who were attuned to the needs of vegetarians and wanted to seem cool by being ethnic.
Thank god Arabs, Persians, Turks, Armenians, and all the disparate groups of the Middle East came to save us fro that blight. We're haven't even reached a Middle Eastern cuisine renaissance, yet: consider this the time when Florence was just realizing that art and literature was beautiful--in other words, we're just at the point where restaurateurs are realizing they can sell regional food, and earn acclaim. Following, then, are 10 great Middle Eastern restaurants--falafel- and hummus-heavy, sure, but also so much more. Enjoy!
And just one note: if there's a preponderance of Anaheim restaurants on this list, it's because Anaheim has Little Arabia--DUH!
10. Sahara Falafel
Anyone who knows anything about Middle Eastern food in Orange County is that you don't get the falafels at Sahara Falafel but rather the shawerma, perhaps the best in the county. Sahara also has the fortune of being at the nexus of Anaheim's Little Arabia enclave, and has featured prominently in many news accounts covering the many protests and rallies held in the area in the past two years of Arab springs and intifadas.
590 S. Brookhurst St. Anaheim, (714) 491-0400; www.saharafalafel.com
9. Midan Al Tahrir
This place has only been open a couple of months but is already creating buzz with a proudly provincial men that ranges from Egyptian street food to the cuisine of the Khaleeji, the countries on the Persian Gulf. Try the koushari, the Egyptian equivalent of Rice-a-Roni: a rice pilaf of lentils and chickpeas topped with macaroni, spaghetti and enough fried onions to make a hamburger stand proud.
1324 S. Magnolia Ave. Anaheim, (714) 844-2515
8. Al Wadee
Al Wadee's menu is fiendishly simple: appetizers, combo plates, sandwiches and a list of manakeesh, the topping-packed flatbread of the Levant. Baskets of pita come with every order, each one so fresh flour falls off it like snow flurries, with tiny black spots denoting where char marks were just beginning to emerge. Order a side of their yogurt drenched in olive oil, and that's enough meal for a month.
311 S. Brookhurst St. Anaheim, (714) 956-2997; www.alwadee.net
7. Cafe Matinee
Lebanese restaurants are perhaps the most common Middle Eastern food we have, and this one (located in, of all places, Lake Forest), might be the best. None of the entrées and appetizers available is a surprise so much as embellished. Hummus, for instance, is properly garlicky and oily, but you can also have it topped with awarma, ground lamb sautéed to a sweet, cardamom-y zenith.
23532 El Toro Rd., Lake Forest, (949) 588-7511; www.lebanesecafe.net
6. Doner G
Orange County continues to transform into a center of Turkish cultural life in the United States, and restaurants are responding accordingly, none more so than this Anaheim standard. Best dish is the iskender kabob: Imagine petal-thin, luscious meats now cooked in a savory tomato sauce more Italian than Anatolian, but nevertheless delicious. Top it with melted butter to add more sweetness. End with cooling yogurt on the side. Simple, filling, nuanced, good--eat!
2139 E. Ball Rd., Anaheim, (714) 956-0123; www.donerg.com.
5. Ara's Pastry
Don't bother with Sarkis Pastry down the street; here is your best Armenian-by-way-of-Lebanon bakery. Quadruple-layer columns of trays extend across the bakery, heavy with cookies, Bavarian cake slices, cream tarts and other European confections. And, of course, there's baklava, the Middle Eastern dessert standard baked here in eight distinct styles: shaped into diamonds, hexagons, flaky cylinders . . . nearly every shape in the Game of Perfection. And the maamouls! Maamouls!
2227 W. Ball Anaheim, (714) 776-5554; www.araspastry.com
4. Al Amir Bakery
The restaurant that was too good to disappear after its original location broke down, Al Amir eeks out a victory over its worthy competitors Al Sanabel and Forn Al Hara for this fact. Their glorious sphihas (12 different choices) are as yummy as ever-made fresh and before your eyes, put in a massive oven that turns a former disc of dough into a crunchy, soft treasure. A zaatar sphiha is probably the best: Something about the desiccated multispice rub spread across baked flatbread is just perfect.
2281 W. Ball Rd. Anaheim, (714) 535-0973; www.alamirbakery.com
Seemingly half of Little Gaza visits 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. Owners Mike and Nancy Hawari are the sole employees of the tiny place, and the waiters/cooks/hosts coddle their customers from entrance to exit with wondrous hummus and the greatest falafels on Earth.
1208 S. Brookhurst St., Anaheim, (714) 778-6829.
2. Wholesome Choice
It says much about this restaurant's worth that its Persian offerings beat every other restaurant in the county for flavor, size, and bargain. And, of course, their extraordinary sangak, Persian flatbread straight from Ahura Mazda to your mouth.
18040 Culver Irvine, (949) 551-4111; www.wholesomechoice.com
1. Olive Tree
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The undisputed king of Middle Eastern eats in OC, with a legendary Ramadan buffet, regional treats, and a stuffed baby lamb that's so sinful it's right.
512 S. Brookhurst St. Anaheim, (714) 535-2878