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Cook's Walk

Tabbouleh Town

Take a walk through the restaurants, shops and cafes of Anaheim's bustling Little Arabia.

April 24, 2002|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For Armenian food, you go to south Glendale or east Hollywood. For Persian food, it's Westwood or Reseda. For Arab markets and restaurants, the local capital is Anaheim. The three-block stretch of Brookhurst Street from Ball Road to Orange Avenue is home to three Arab markets, two restaurants, two cafes, a butcher shop and a bakery.

All the Middle Eastern cuisines have a lot in common, so the markets stock much the same ingredients that you'd find in a Persian or Armenian store (as well as some Indian ingredients, particularly condiments), and the restaurant menus are a lot like Armenian menus--hummus, tabbouleh, shish kebab, baklava. What makes them specifically Arab? They all have at least a few ingredients or dishes you're not likely to see elsewhere, and some feature tombak, the special aromatic tobacco for smoking in a water pipe.

This is the densest collection of Middle Eastern food businesses in Anaheim, but there are others. If you go a mile south, you'll find a bright new market named Ta'ami at Brookhurst Street and Katella Avenue. If you head half a mile west on Ball Road instead, you'll come across Alexandria Restaurant & Fish Market, Al Sham Pastry, Sarkis Pastry, Anaheim King Market and a Zankou Chicken all in the same mini-mall at Gilbert Street. Little Cairo Restaurant and Janna, a tiny Lebanese eatery with a pool table, are a mile farther west at Dale Street. No surprise, this part of Anaheim is known as Little Arabia.

Some of the businesses have hung American flags in their windows, but you do sense a little unease in the neighborhood. Not so much in the markets, which draw canny shoppers from a variety of ethnic groups and look quite busy. The restaurants, by contrast, seem to be patronized mostly by people speaking Arabic, and business sometimes looks quiet in some of them.

The owners of these businesses are mostly from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine, which share a common repertoire of dishes. You can count on seeing olives and olive oils, rice by the sack, bulgur wheat in all its grades, rosewater and orange blossom water, yogurt, fresh flatbreads and filo pastries in the markets.

You'll also find syrups and honeys, inexpensive produce, canned Mediterranean vegetables and pickles, a surprising range of European cookies and handsome displays of halal meat (slaughtered according to Islamic law). All the markets carry Arab ingredients such as zaatar (a seasoning of wild thyme mixed with tart ground sumac berry), jamid (spiced buttermilk solids, often added to sauces) and Arab-style cheeses. The stock is mostly the same in all the markets, but each place also carries some unique items.

Also on the street are two cafes of the sort you'd find in Damascus or Amman: male hangouts for drinking Turkish coffee (typically flavored Arab-style with cardamom) and perhaps having a pastry, but mostly for chatting, watching Arabic TV, playing backgammon and smoking the narghile, or water pipe, which has returned to fashion in the Arab world during the last 15 years. If a non-Arab walks into one, the patrons' reaction is likely to be guarded but mostly just very surprised.

1. The pioneer business in the neighborhood was Al Tayebat Grocery, located on the west side of Brookhurst just south of Ball Road. Owner Sami Khouraki, a onetime Kmart manager, opened the store 20 years ago. A few years later he took over the space next door and doubled the size of Al Tayebat (the name means "good things"). Khouraki is from Aleppo, Syria, and likes to emphasize Aleppo's traditional role as the center of trade between Europe and the Middle East. He maintains a Web site where you can place orders.

The south half of the shop, the produce department, mostly stocks the same fruits and vegetables as your local supermarket, at least at this season of the year, though it is likely to have ridged cucumbers (miqta; the Armenian ghoota) and peeled garlic cloves by the 5-pound sack. North of that is a freezer case full of filo and puff pastry, samosa pastry ("samosa pad"), frozen quail and the Middle Eastern vegetables moloukhiya (a green also known as Jew's mallow) and colcas (qulqas, a potato-like root also called taro).

Past that there are six aisles of staples such as oils, condiments, canned vegetables, syrups and pastas. Against the far wall are fresh breads, a little selection of Middle Eastern cooking utensils and a cubbyhole stocked with spices and sacks of rice. Along the west wall are a large halal meat department (whole lambs, $1.99 a pound) and dairy cases featuring domestic Akkawi cheese (like a dense feta, but less salty) and the creamier Nabulsi, not to mention many fetas and string cheeses.

Both narghiles and narghile tobaccos are for sale near the door. The impulse items at the cash register are likely to be frozen quail and bulk dates and walnuts. This is the largest market in the neighborhood and has the greatest number of unique items on its shelves, such as makdous (walnut-stuffed eggplants pickled in olive oil).

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