Photo by Joy WeberSunset falls, and the until-then-empty Al Waha B.B.Q. Family Restaurant quickly crowds with Muslim families breaking their Ramadan fast. The buffet table, initially invisible under platters of rice hills, spiced salads, and meats of assorted grilling and stewing, soon clears as a haj-long line snakes around the food. This environment is how Norm's would play in Damascus—hijab-wearing mothers give futile chase to their hummus-smeared toddlers; flirtatious young Prada-bedecked men and women share a peach-flavored argeela (water pipe). A group of youngsters debate Simpsons trivia in surfer-boy English while gathered around an arcade game and fighting over the last batch of stuffed grape leaves. Meanwhile, most of the men gather around the television near Al Waha's entrance, switching maniacally between al-Jazeera updates and the Lakers game.
This is America at its most yummily raucous, as Asian, Latino and white families join Muslims in the clamor, united under the brotherhood of good grub. Such a scene would infuriate members of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform—in fact, the anti-immigrant zealots hold their monthly meetings a block away in the Garden Grove Women's Club. But Barbara Coe herself would sing the praises of open borders if she crossed the street and chomped on Al Waha's buttered pita.
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The thankfully few shortcomings of Al Waha are ameliorated by its simple-but-impressive surprises. The customary side of pickled turnips should be soaked in garlic-tainted water for a longer period, but the accompanying bowl of pungent, fleshy olives is the best possible use of the tiny fruit, presented au natural. Pita sandwiches are tinier than tacos when they should be as bulky as burritos, but a zingy tahini sauce that assumes the properties of a mild salsa makes them must-orders. Salmon, lamb and chicken kabobs are rudimentary, but the side of rice mixed with giant almond slivers gives each plate a Persian elegance.
Multicultural madness aside, the real reason Muslims and kafirs alike patronize Al Waha is for Middle Eastern regional specialties unknown to other county Arabic restaurants. Hidden under the daily specials menu heading, these dishes trump Frommer's in giving insight to the Middle East. Bamia is an okra-and-beef stew native to Iraq, tasting equal parts Mesopotamia and Mississippi. Better is molokhia, a vegetarian Egyptian soup as regal as the Sphinx. And Jordan makes an appearance with mansaf, a yogurt-cooked lamb dish sprinkled with almonds and pine nuts.
And those delicious dried dates next to the register? Free of charge.
Al Waha B.B.Q. Family Restaurant, 9562 Chapman Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 539-0656.