Olive Tree Restaurant bustled with lunchtime patrons while tambourine-driven Arabic music blared in the background on a recent afternoon in Anaheim. It’s even more hectic than usual, since the Middle Eastern eatery—a staple of the city’s Little Arabia district since 2006—is moving this week right as Ramadan approaches.
Owner Alan Abdo took a break from relaying an order to the kitchen to share the exciting news. The restaurant is taking over a shuttered Baja Fresh Mexican Grill nearby in the same plaza. “We’re turning old Olive Tree into a more modern operation,” he says. “I like to joke that my dad brought the cash register with him from Palestine in 1948!”
Yusuf Abdo, Alan’s father, started the restaurant eleven years ago as a fidgety retiree sidelined from his textile engineer career by quintuple bypass surgery. Olive Tree, known for its hefty portions of tender lamb shanks, mansaf specials and flavorful lentil soups, soon gained accolades and praise from the press—including back-to-back “Best Middle Eastern Restaurant” honors from the Weekly.
“My dad created something out of nothing and it’s based off his love of cooking,” Abdo says. Yusuf’s concern at the end of every night is if the people enjoyed their meals, not how much money the restaurant made. People longing for a taste of nostalgia can still dine at Olive Tree’s original spot until Wednesday before its closes.
But the new location isn’t the only change coming. “This time, my father’s retiring for real,” Abdo says. He bought out his dad’s co-ownership of the restaurant earlier this year when an opportunity to move into Baja Fresh’s more spacious quarters arose. The most visible sign that Olive Tree outgrew its hole-in-the-wall home came with the long lines for its iftar buffets during Ramadan. The restaurant easily served up 150-200 people within an hour after sunset, when devout Muslims are allowed break day-long fasting in the name of patience and humility during Islam’s holiest month.
Now Abdo is hoping to have Olive Tree’s kitchen up-and-running by this Saturday, just in time for the first iftar of Ramadan. Once he signed the lease from Little Arabia Plaza owner Ahmad Alam a week-and-a-half ago, construction crews got to work the next morning. “I want people to think they are sitting in a nice restaurant in the heart of Jerusalem,” Abdo says, envisioning the ambiance. As for any changes to the menu, they come in the form of mouthwatering additions. An Egyptian cook is working on two dishes from his homeland, koshari and bechamel, in expanding Olive Tree’s repertoire.
The restaurant is also changing its hours with the new location, staying open until 2 a.m., perfect for night owls seeking nourishment. But that won’t come until after Ramadan wraps up. So don’t bother for lunch just yet, but do join hungry Muslims for the sunset buffet after the adhan (call to prayer). “The media isn’t portraying who we really are,” Abdo says, extending an invitation to non-Muslims. “When they come they’ll get to see Muslim families eating and laughing. And they’ll get to eat, too.”
Won’t they ever! The legendary buffet boasts twenty-two appetizers, six main meals, three types of juice, water, tea and sweets. “Our portions are big!” Abdo says. “Definitely, Arabs eat a lot more than any other culture. Sometimes they eat it all and ask for more rice!”
Gabriel San Román is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and the tallest Mexican in OC. He also once stood falsely accused of writing articles on Turkish politics in exchange for free food from DönerG’s!