In classical times, a large swath of the Eastern Mediterranean—from Turkey through Syria and around the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt—was known as a single cultural region, with a shared history, its own Arabic dialect and a cuisine that reflected its location at the literal crossroads of the world.
In Arabic, the area was called Sham because of its location in relation to Mecca, but by the Middle Ages, Western Europeans had begun to refer to it as the Levant, the French word for rising (because to them, it was in the east, where the sun rises).
Today, after wars and empires have carved the land into individual countries defined by arbitrarily drawn lines, Levant is a term used mainly by archeologists and historians to refer to their research in what is now covered by Israel, Lebanon, part of Syria and Jordan. To Americans, the vast and varied Levantine cuisine—with its complex regional spice mixes and love of small-plate appetizers and slow-cooked meats—has been reduced to hummus, gyro sandwiches and kebabs, repackaged as Lebanese or, more broadly, Middle Eastern/Mediterranean food.
Ammatolí in downtown Long Beach is changing that. The casual storefront on Third Street has become a classroom for Levantine explorers, dropping the word across dish descriptions and encouraging orders that challenge palates and perceptions—a strong lure for those who want to go beyond the Westernized Open Sesames of the world.
Splaying far past the usual Lebanese suspects, the menu (which, yes, contains the requisite gyro, hummus and kebabs) is a close riff of the owners’ first restaurant: the Beirut Mix in Hermosa Beach, a takeout counter that in the decade after moving from Artesia has morphed into a sit-down favorite with a simple wine list where locals can nosh on multiple mezza, sliced shawarma and a dozen salads tossed in fragrant dressings.
Ammatolí’s dining room is thoughtfully curated in gold and mirrors and wood and marble. The chef is a Syrian-Jordanian woman who excels in not holding back the fresh spices on her specialties, which range from musakhan chicken rolls (a sandwich take on the all-day, whole-chicken dish, with caramelized onions, pine nuts and sumac rolled in a thin saj pita) to jibneh manoush (soft akkawi cheese melted onto a puffy flatbread) to samkeh harra (spice-rubbed grilled fish atop vermicelli pilaf and served with a fiery habanero salsa).
Traditional ingredients such as bulgar wheat, tahini, sumac and an aromatic spice mix called zaatar abound. The seared halloumi cheese mezza, topped with fresh mint and balanced with sweet cherry tomatoes on the side, comes as squeaky as a new shower. Plates of soft pita come ripe for dipping in creamy foul, goopy mujaddara and a spicy hummus that’s tinted red with heat.
Every dish down to the French fries arrives first through the nose, as the smell of spices wafts from the hijabi’s hands in the kitchen into the open dining room.
It’s best to dine in when the owners are on the floor or at the counter so you can leech their enthusiasm for (and knowledge of) the Levantine cuisine they serve. In the chaos of opening a new restaurant that is more popular than they could have anticipated, the struggle to train new staff is very real, and a few visits without the owners’ personalized service has resulted in mixed-up orders and inaccurate information.
Perhaps this is a consequence of so many new restaurants coming to the city, picking away at qualified servers. More likely, it’s a factor of Ammatolí’s greatness; the food is so exciting it warrants multiple visits per week. After all, it remains the only place in Long Beach to get an untainted taste of the true Levant.
Ammatolí , 285 E. Third St., Long Beach, (562) 435-0808; ammatoli.com.
Sarah Bennett is a freelance journalist who has spent nearly a decade covering food, music, craft beer, arts, culture and all sorts of bizarro things that interest her for local, regional and national publications.