Arab American and immigrant business owners in West Anaheim have served residents a piece of their culture through food, clothes and even hookah for many years.
Some people are willing to drive for hours to get a taste of authentic, traditional Arab and North African pastries like knafeh, baklava, fried dough also known as awameh, and Syrian ice cream called bouza.
Arab American Heritage Month
This story is the part of an ongoing series highlighting Arab American business owners and community based organizations as part of Arab American Heritage Month in April.
Maher Nakhal, owner of Le Mirage Pastry in the district known as Little Arabia, has been happily obliging those coming from a distance and local residents for years with various sweets and pastries from his homeland of Syria.
“You don’t have to travel to Syria to see the culture,” Nakhal said “You can come to Little Arabia.”
“You don’t have to go to Damascus to eat shawarma (a meat wrap), we have shawarma here. If you want to eat baklava we have good baklava here.”
Nakhal is part of an Arab business community that started to form decades ago in the area with the emergence of a mosque and Islamic school off Brookhurst Street.
The Islamic Society of Orange County – a Muslim holy place for prayer and atonement – helped kickstart a string of businesses in what some would describe as an unholy, rundown and seedy part of Anaheim.
While the mosque is located in Garden Grove, many Arab American businesses like Altayebat Market opened up the street in Anaheim. These merchants revitalized a rundown part of town and made it a cultural destination without any city subsidies – not just through the efforts of Muslim owners but Christians too.
For decades some of these business owners and the community members they serve have been calling on city leaders to recognize those efforts by putting up signs that identify the area — long a bustling cultural and culinary hub — as Little Arabia.
“This will help the Arab community and it will help others in the area too,” Nakhal said. “I hope they put a sign up.”
Voice of OC is venturing out to feature business owners and community organizations during Arab American Heritage Month.
Pastries – A Ticket to America
Nakhal picked up his trade as a 15-year-old boy in Syria working at a bakery. He has dedicated a majority of his life to baking.
“Since 1979 I’ve been working in baking,” Nakhal said.
After developing the skills of his craft Nakhal became the executive chef of Le Meridien Hotel in Damascus for a couple of years.
“Jimmy Carter, he came to visit Syria. He wasn’t the president he just came to visit and he tasted my pastries and he loved it,” Nakhal said in a phone interview. “He took some baklava with him and travelled to Jerusalem.”
He added that Carter sent him a letter thanking him for the sweets.
As a boy in Syria, Nakhal dreamt of going to the United States after his sister got married and moved to America.
“At that time, I had a dream to go to the United States so I asked my sister what I should do to come and she told me that I have to have a career,” he said.
Nakhal’s sister suggested that he bake.
“When she told me that, right away I went to a bakery and I started to bake. I put my target on baking and I love it. It’s in my heart and my blood and that’s why I was successful with that,” he said.
After working as an executive chef, Nakhal ventured off to California in the early 1990s to chase that childhood dream, working at pastries shops here before moving to manage a bakery in Washington D.C.
“We used to sell baklava to the White House,” Nakhal said.
Nakhal came back to California after working in D.C. and in the early 2000s opened his own shop, Le Mirage Pastry, in Anaheim’s Little Arabia.
“A lot of people in Anaheim are Arab so that’s why I started my business here,” Nakhal said.
Le Mirage Pastry: An American Dream
Nakhal said he struggled at first to get the shop but eventually met his goal to open his business that he has grown with the help of his wife and family. He didn’t limit himself to baking; he also started catering Syrian food, which he still does today.
“Businesses have a hard time in the beginning but slowly and gradually it picks up and keeps going and I will say that we are blessed. Portos (another bakery) is a few miles away from us and we still have customers. Ups and downs – every business has that,” said Farhan Usmani, Nakhal’s brother-in-law.
Usmani recently started a website for Le Mirage after losing his job during the pandemic and is trying to digitally market the business on social media. They’re selling their pastries online.
“Mr. Maher has the best heart and he’s passionate about what he’s doing,” Usmani said. “I learned so many things from him.”
Usmani is not the only relative helping Nakhal with his business. He also has help from his second cousin, Mahmmod Osman, who takes care of the financial side.
“(Nakhal’s) skills make (Le Mirage) a little bit more unique compared to others because he has diverse expertise in not just the Middle Eastern desserts, also French and Italian,” Osman said.
He added that Nakhal also recently started making and selling Syrian ice cream called Bouza – something that the business owner had wanted to do for a while.
“Bouza is very unique and it has a special process to do it. You have to hit it and all that stuff. It’s not like the standard ice cream that you have here,” Osman said.
He added that like everyone else the business was impacted by the pandemic but said the new website and delivery apps like Uber Eats have helped them carry on.
Osman also pointed out Nakhal’s passion for his work.
“You can see he loves it,” Osman said. “I am not saying this because we are related but I’ve been to many places and I feel like his pastries are more authentic and as close as possible to Middle Eastern desserts and sweets.”
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him @email@example.com or on Twitter @ElattarHosam