Oasis Food Cafe Serves Balela in Brea

I thought I'd eaten all of what OC's amazing Middle Eastern restaurants had to offer: the sphihas and hot sauces and Iraqi bread and Egyptian spaghetti and Syrian fried meatballs. But when I swung by Oasis Food Cafe in Brea, there was something I had never even heard of before, let alone seen in an Orange County menu. “What's balela?” I asked the nice waiter after he took my shawerma pita order.

“It's what happens before hummus,” he replied. Proto-hummus? “Cooked garbanzo beans, fava on bottom and a lot of spice. Lebanese. Highly recommend it.”

As he left, I Googled the term and saw that Trader Joe's apparently serves a version. Now I remember: a type of bean salad. Sounds boring. I began second-guessing myself when he finally brought the balela, along with some pita slices. Wow! Trader Joe's balela is to the real deal what the Doritos Loco taco is to an al pastor bought from a Tijuana street cart. Not only were the garbanzo and fava beans perfect, the whole garbanzos adding texture to the fava's fine mush, but the spices mixed in throughout also enlivened the dish in a way no other Middle Eastern dish in OC can. There was zaatar, of course, the classic Lebanese spice rub, but also cumin, garlic and other mysteries even the waiter couldn't remember—electricity in a spread.

That such a rarity as balela is being served is enough reason to visit Oasis Food Cafe. Even though it's in boring Brea, the chefs aren't afraid to offer dishes that appeal only to expats, from manakish (Levantine pizzas) to cucumber yogurt to dollops of labne. The entrées are more mainstream—gyro this, fattoush that, all customizable à la Chipotle—and there's even a smoothie bar for all the teens strolling through after Brea Junior High lets out for the day. They're fine, but then you discover the mulberry juice—so dense it's almost savory, but ending with a sugary flourish. And then you wonder anew: How the hell did this great spot end up in Brea?

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