Anne Marie Panoringan
Voice of OC’s food columnist — reporting on industry news, current events and trends. Panoringan’s prior work includes writing for eight years at OC Weekly in which she interviewed over 330 industry professionals for her weekly “On the Line” column. She has been recognized by the Orange County Press Club and she also is a recurring guest on AM 830’s SoCal Restaurant Show. In 2022, Anne Marie was a judge for the James Beard Awards.
On Aug. 23, 2022, Anaheim City Council’s decision to designate Little Arabia was a historic moment for the community decades in the making. Pending a study of the businesses along Brookhurst Street, the proposed thoroughfare will be between Ball Road and Broadway, with the possibility of expanding as wide as Katella and Crescent avenues.
According to Rashad Al-Dabbagh, founder and executive director at Arab American Civic Council, “Over the years, Arab Americans have transformed Brookhurst Street into a thriving cultural and business destination. People come to Little Arabia from all over Southern California for the unique eateries and services it provides.”
I spent two summers in the ‘90s residing at a complex on the corner of Brookhurst and Broadway. Nondescript plazas, a drive-thru with bulletproof glass and Linbrook Bowl were the few memories I have of the neighborhood. Little would I know that 20+ years later, the Brookhurst Street corridor would be home to a rich culture of cuisine.
One of the best ways to understand a culture is through its food, so I sought out recommendations to try with a dining companion. My succinct list is a starting point for unfamiliar diners seeking an overview of what Little Arabia has to offer for every meal of the day – including dessert.
A Meat-Driven Meal
Famished after a long work day, we sought out a hearty dinner and found what we were looking for at Desert Moon Grill (888 S. Brookhurst St.). Soft lighting and high partitioned booths offered privacy and a relaxed vibe to talk freely without disrupting others. Specializing in Middle Eastern and Palestinian cuisine since 2016, the comprehensive menu serves patrons from late morning until after sundown.
We began with chicken toshka, a house special featuring Syrian cheese and chicken stuffed into baked pita – akin to an Arab quesadilla but sturdier. Wood-fired grilled entrees were my focus so I ordered the kufta kabab, a blend of ground beef and lamb mixed with parsley and garlic. Served alongside grilled tomatoes and onions, the components were almost stuffed into a pita, but I was enamored by fluffy grains of rice garnished with slivered almonds. My friend went for the mixed chicken and meat shawarma platter, so we could share it easily. Dishes served are generously plated, feeding the two of us for at least a second meal. We left craving something sweet.
The Original Cheese Pull
As luck would have it, we were parked in the same plaza as a popular dessert spot a few doors over from Desert Moon. Knafeh Cafe’s (866 S. Brookhurst St.) signature squares of this chewy, sweet cheese dessert are often prepared for celebrations and made a few different ways. One knafeh incorporates qeshtah (a type of cream) while the other two utilize cheese topped with either fine or shredded buttery dough, then finished with housemade simple syrup and a dusting of pistachio. According to my friend, it’s the shredded dough knafeh that’s worth the wait as they warm each request. The lightly crunchy top layer adhering to melty cheese is a pleasing mouthfeel rivaled only by a satisfying knafeh fork pull.
Owner Asem Abusair makes his knafeh with a family recipe that’s been passed down to share some of his Palestinian culture with the neighborhood. His previous storefront was situated at the intersection of Ball Road and Beach Boulevard, but relocated to Little Arabia.
Fired Up Flatbreads
Another source I reached out to was Orange County native and Foodbeast co-founder Elie Ayrouth. He was featured in a video called Chomping Grounds, capturing some of his favorite Middle Eastern spots while growing up in Anaheim. When I requested a breakfast suggestion, Ayrouth recommended Forn Al Hara (512 S. Brookhurst St., Suite 5) as his preferred spot. Specializing in Lebanese flatbreads called manaeesh, the restaurant serves them in full and mini sizes.
I asked owner Mo Alam to select a few for my late breakfast. He rang up a mini flatbread trio, the first consisting of zatar (oregano, thyme, herbs and olive oil), one combining cheese with eggs as well as a kafta (ground beef, parsley, onions and seasonings) flavor. Since flatbreads are fired to order in a wood-burning oven, I passed the time people-watching the comings and goings of regulars getting their manaeesh fix. Freshly baked goods are one of life’s simple pleasures, and as I rotated among the flavors I savored the uniqueness of each one between nibbles of pickles and olives included with my meal.
A Wealth of Sweets
Possessing a sweet tooth is an unwritten Little Arabia dining requirement. At all the storefronts I stepped into, dessert options were either available or pre-packaged by the register for purchase. Inside Le Mirage Pastries (100 S. Brookhurst St.), Syrian owner Maher Nakal caters to all tastes with a spectrum of baked delicacies.
Initially, I dropped by to admire the well-lit display cases housing endless cookies and baklava and left with a small haul of pistachio-flavored treats. For a follow-up visit, I recalled Al-Dabbagh’s suggestion to check out the bouza, a Middle Eastern ice cream only found at Nakal’s shop that he produces in a single flavor. From the way it is crafted to how it holds up to heatwave temperatures, bouza is a complex yet special treat that he is proud to serve (Nakal even allowed us a peek in the kitchen to demonstrate the process). I was fascinated by its resemblance to buche de Noel, the mochi-like mouthfeel and delicately floral/nutty flavor.
A Little Arabia-Adjacent Falafel Gem
Sababa Falafel Shop (11011 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove) may be an outlier in the current proposal for Little Arabia’s designation, but that doesn’t deter Al-Dabbagh from frequenting this deep-fried chickpea specialist. Accessible from Brookhurst Street or Katella Avenue, its distinct white and neon green signage drew us in. The fascination continued as my friend and I contemplated its Palestinian menu board options while a worker held out two spherical samples. Sized larger than a golf ball, our initial bite of falafel was a warm, pliable revelation of flavor.
An efficient quick service operation, Sababa is a customizable paradise. Opt for a pita if you plan to use your hands; select a bowl if wielding a fork. From this point it’s a vibrant spread of options: pickles, red cabbage, sumac-flavored onions, parsley, tahini, hummus – and those are only half of the accouterments. The person assembling my bowl avoided a haphazard piling of ingredients, thoughtfully plating my meal as if it would be expedited to a dining room (Note: there is no seating inside, but a narrow ledge by the drink dispenser and a few low tables outside). It also offers ribeye and chicken options, but since the term “sababa” translates to “great or excellent,” stick to the namesake offering.
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Before I began writing professionally about food, the aromas, textures and tastes of many dishes I tried were not only familiar but some of my go-to meals when dining alone. Exploring this specific Anaheim neighborhood simply reaffirmed my cravings (and introduced me to desserts I would like seconds of).
Thanks to citizens such as Al-Dabbagh, Anaheim finally recognized the cultural significance of this particular enclave. “This is the beginning of a partnership with the city of Anaheim to work together on expanding and improving Little Arabia,” he said.
Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at email@example.com.