Forget falafels and hummus, beef shawarma and baklava: A new Middle Eastern culinary reality has entered Orange County. Proof? The entrepreneurs behind Zait and Zaatar felt confident enough to open their Lebanese deli in Anaheim’s Little Arabia enclave—even though it’s now the third such restaurant to open in the area this year, after Forn Al-Hara and Al-Amir Bakery, and that all must compete behind the standard in the region, Al-Sanabel Bakery.
Nevertheless, Zait and Zaatar has drawn in foodies and families, Muslim and non-Muslim alike to feast on its simple, affordable, delicious offerings since opening this summer. The dive focuses on sphihas, Middle Eastern flatbreads topped with ingredients that look like a Levantine pizza but are eminently more affordable and delicious. Take a hint from its name and start with a zaatar sphiha. The desiccated herb rub finds oregano, sesame seeds, olive oil and other dried herbs fighting for supremacy over your palate and reaching a tart truce—here, the zaatar extends from one end of the large flatbread it tops to the other. The lahmbajeen variety features ground beef pounded into a pâté-like spread and enlivened with tomato sauce and cinnamon—sweet like few other meat products you’ll ever taste. I always order soujouk, an Armenian-style beef sausage as spicy as chorizo but not as oily, or a version containing four cheeses that melt into one another until the result is a salty-sweet-gooey dream. The sphihas arrive baked to order, so fresh it’s advisable to tear off some slices, let the steam escape, and then—and only then—munch.
Those not interested in sphihas can order wraps, but not the tired things created with a lukewarm pita. Zait and Zaatar makes its with saj, a thinner yet heartier bread also baked fresh that approximates the size, shape and consistency of a wheat tortilla. The comparison isn’t just my Mexican mind vainly attempting to square away all meals within my culinary framework—the wraps truly look like burritos and are stuffed the same way: with a primary ingredient, a condiment and maybe a couple of other goodies. Not only that, but the restaurant also offers gourmet takes—and succeeds. The soujouk shines again, this time spiked with a furious garlic paste that rivals what Sassoon Chicken offers in potency. A Philadelphia wrap doesn’t match up to the fluffy wonder of a Philly cheesesteak, but since when did a combination of beef, cheese, onions and bell peppers ever fail? Add other treats on the menu (order some kibbeh to go—ground lamb mixed with cracked wheat, formed into small orbs, then fried), and Zait and Zaatar will have you relegate the falafel to the scrap heap of outdated Middle Eastern tropes such as fezzes and “The Sheik of Araby”—although the falafels here are good, too.
Zait and Zaatar, 510 N. Brookhurst St., Ste. 106, Anaheim, (714) 991-9996; www.zaitandzaatar.com.
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This column appeared in print as "Beyond the Falafel."