Come off the street, and they'll greet you like they've known you for years. Everyone I know who call themselves loyal customers to Zena's speaks of the Masri family like old friends. And once you've been welcomed into the fold of their smiling brood, you'll also think the same.
These customers swap stories of holidays, relationships and world events, all while feasting in the Masris' house of food and love. Night after night, you'll see the restaurant rearrange tables end-to-end, stretching as far as the dining room is long, to accommodate big parties. On those nights, every square inch is alive with laughter, and the Masri family is always front-and-center as gracious, doting hosts.
One night, I feel like some falafel, so I order the dinner plate. My server, a member of the family, steers me clear of it. Better to order the falafel appetizer instead, he says. It's cheaper almost by half, and the amount is comparable to the full-priced plate.
Of course, he's right; the falafel as an appetizer is exactly the right portion size, and I saved four bucks. Chopped up into crunchy chunks, it's covered in tahini, diced scallions, parsley and tomato. It's just as refreshing as what seems to be the Masri family philosophy: friends before profit.
But it's not all about the warm fuzzies. The food is seriously good, uncompromisingly made from scratch. Take what they do to the cauliflower and eggplant. The former, a salad-bar reject I've come to know as broccoli's boring cousin, is reborn, deep-fried to an inexplicably greaseless finish and flavorful with nary a speck of batter. The fried eggplant is shaved as thin as potato chips and tastes so sweet you'll swear they're plantains.
Whenever possible, order the kibbee kebab before it runs out. They look like tiny football-shaped fritters. Inside the crumbly, deep-fried shell, there's ground beef, bits of onion and pine nuts. Dunk 'em in the homemade yogurt dipping sauce, and you realize why the things are best-sellers.
Zena's also has two different sausages called manak and sojok, both offered as appetizers. Don't miss either one. The first comes from the Masris' home country of Lebanon. It's cut into stubby cylinders as short as thimbles and so lemony sour it will pucker your lips faster than the sliced pickles surrounding it. The second hails from Armenia and is sliced on the bias from a sausage thicker than the Hillshire Farms variety. It's spicier, leaner and twice as addictive. A greasy, red oil slick will be the only evidence of your gluttony.
For salads, there are a crisp fettoush and a taboulli greener than a lawn in spring. Nothing beats their chicken soup to lull you into the sense that you've come home to roost-brimming with carrots, noodles, cubed white meat and a squeeze of lemon for zing, it's really no different from your mom's chicken soup. But that's precisely the draw: It aims straight for your tender memories of comfort.
Another heart-tugging experience is the entrée named shaikhel mehshi, a warming, soul-enriching plate of eggplant stuffed full of ground beef, doused with a simple tomato sauce and served with plenty of rice. Spoonful after spoonful, it will again remind you of mom. If you're a homesick Lebanese transplant, don't be afraid to weep into the dish. When you do, I bet a Masri family member will come over to give you a hug.
Less emotionally evocative but equally satisfying is the kafta mishwee, tubes of barbecued, spiced ground beef. Devoid of fat, packed into a dense and chewy state, this is hamburger meat serving a nobler purpose. And if I didn't mention it already, the side of rice is miraculous—so fluffy it seems to float, so floral it seems perfumed.
When we asked for a dessert of ba 'lewa (a buttery, not-too-sweet Lebanese version of baklava), we were told it was on the house, an apology for a busy night when the staff was stretched thin. Frankly, even without the freebie, I was ready to forgive. That's what friends do.
Zena's Lebanese Cuisine, 2094 N. Tustin St., Orange, (714) 279-9511. Open daily, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $40-50, food only. Beer and wine.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.