This Hole-in-the-Wall Life

OLIVE TREE RESTAURANT makes all the Middle Eastern favorites you probably tired of long ago: musky hummus and babaghanoush; slowly spinning chicken and beef shawermas plump with juices the meat has absorbed for hours; kabobs, crispy falafels, tabbouleh minced as finely as sand. But this Little Gaza dive differentiates itself from its county competition by serving meals you won't find anywhere else.

Like tahalat. Olive Tree's menu doesn't say what tahalat is—it's lamb spleen—only that it's "specially marinated" and "roasted." You don't need to know what tahalat is, just eat these slices of well-cooked, velvety meat, a bit salty, but tremendously herbed with cilantro and garlic. I've never found an Orange County restaurant that offered tahalat, so you should visit Olive Tree for that alone.

The remarkable thing about Olive Tree is that tahalat is part of its regular menu; the real rarities belong to the daily special menu. The Lord's Day brings musakhan, a chicken casserole enlivened with onions and sumac; Monday is the time for maglooba, rice cooked with eggplant, peppers and your choice of beef or chicken. Yogurt fans should visit Tuesdays; that's when Olive Tree prepares two yogurt-based entrées. Ouzi seems simple enough—rice cooked with ground beef, almonds and veggies topped with two massive lamb shanks that you're supposed to dunk in a bowl of yogurt—but is uniquely decadent: milky, hearty, fatty. Kebbeh laabaneah should be spelled "kibbe labneh," but the misspelling doesn't make the fried meatballs and yogurt spread any less delicious. I had to Google the other daily specials—saya deia, freekeh and kabseh—to even know what they were; they're "can't find a good definition," "whole-wheat grain" and "something weird," respectively.

Ultimately, the strangest thing about Olive Tree is the orange juice. When I ordered the drink on my most recent visit, the waitress asked if I wanted it fresh. I nodded. She stepped outside Olive Tree and yelled, "I need one fresh orange juice!" to someone in the parking lot. Minutes passed. I had almost finished my meal when a man handed an orange juice to the waitress. She placed it on my table. It was in a plastic container, and I suspected the man probably ran across the street to Sinbad Ranch Market and bought it. If so, I don't care: I hadn't had such fresh orange juice since my aunts packed the damn fruit.



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