The Accidental Vegetarian

Photo by Joy BastWhen I entered Al-Sanabel Bakery in Anaheim for the first time, I nearly walked right back out. I'm a meat man, and Arabic-style dishes like shawarma and anything kebab are among the most succulent pieces of dead flesh around. But I quickly noticed that most of Al-Sanabel's offerings are vegetarian-friendly, which insulted my meat-centric appetite.

What kept me there were the pictures. Like most Arabic restaurants, Al-Sanabel has pictures of all its entrées to make it easier to order. Prominently on display was a dish that looked like a quesadilla done in 20 different ways. Curious, I asked the cashier why the restaurant offered so many versions of the same dish.

"It's not the same dish," said the friendly man, surprising me by answering my question in Spanish. "They're all sphihas, the Arabic version of pizza, but each one is completely different from the other. Have a piece."

Intrigued, I bit into this sphiha, which was made of spinach and cheese. Then I ordered a whole one. Then I came back the next day and ordered a different vegetarian sphiha. And the day after that. I'm slowly being weaned off my carnivorous ways because of Al-Sanabel, and for a culinary bigot like me, that's saying something.

Finding the tiny eatery isn't easy, but it's definitely worth the trouble. Located in one of the countless strip malls that make up Anaheim's Little Gaza district, the eatery's marquee is in Arabic, with only the word "bakery" written in Roman script indicating its location. You might be drawn by the larger Middle Eastern restaurant on one side and an Arabic candy store on the other. Resist both and enter Al-Sanabel, where you will be greeted by tiny flags of all the Arab nations hanging around the fast-food-esque seating layout.

The bakery makes only two dishes: pita sandwiches and the aforementioned sphiha. Within this simplicity, though, lies culinary greatness, especially with the sphihas. More than half of the sphihas are strictly veggie affairs, but not the usual roughage-heavy dishes I despise. Instead, the main ingredients are spices—and not the spicy kind. Foreign-to-American-cuisine seasoning like pomegranate sauce is the principal player in Al-Sanabel's sphihas.

Although eating an all-spice dish might seem unfulfilling, the way Al-Sanabel prepares them will have you drooling for more. One such version is a zaatar and latneh, which is made of oregano, yogurt, thyme, sesame seeds and olive oil and cut in four pieces—the better to eat them. Another particularly tasty choice is a koko kiri, which is wrapped like a burrito and contains some of the sweetest tomatoes you'll ever taste.

I get so into tasting all the non-meat sphihas that I usually forget about meat. But the animal killer in me is happy to report that Al-Sanabel also offers delicious meat choices. Although some sphihas are made with meat (I recommend the lahmbaajeen with cheese, a scrumptious concoction of ground meat, cheese, spinach, onions, sesame seeds and olive oil), the true meat glory is found in its monstrous soujouk sandwich. Soujouk is an all-beef, spicy Turkish sausage that goes down very easily. Biting into the soujouk sandwich makes me remember meat, but then I see the sphihas and become a vegetarian all over again.

Al-Sanabel is a full-fledged bakery, so an added bonus of the eatery is its baked-daily pastries, including znood, a type of mini-pie with a lightly frosted crust and a custard filling. Make sure to drink any pastry with tahn, a yogurt-flavored beverage that is a bit thick but quickly addicting.

I have eaten the non-meat choices at Al-Sanabel so many times already that I'm this close to changing my once-intolerant views on vegetarianism. At this point, I would join the ranks of PETA if it meant more people would frequent this restaurant. If you see me flinging paint at fur-wearing Newport Beach socialites, you'll know Al-Sanabel is doing good business.

Al-Sanabel Bakery, located at 816 S. Brookhurst Blvd., Anaheim, is open daily, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. (714) 635-4353. No alcohol. Dinner for two, $10, food only. MC and Visa accepted.


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