A Visit to Little Arabia

August 19, 2011 § 2 Comments

If you live in Los Angeles, you might be excused for never having heard of Little Arabia. Before a few months ago, I hadn’t either. But it turns out that the most prominent Arabic community in Southern California is mostly clustered (or at least most visible) around a half-dozen-block stretch of Brookhurst Street in Anaheim. The area was recently designated as  will hopefully be officially recognized as “Little Arabia” by the Anaheim City Council in the near future—though it has previously been known as Little Gaza—and if demographic information is to be believed, it’s one of the largest Arabic communities in the country aside from the one in and around Detroit.

Thanks to the tip of a well-placed informant, we found ourselves cruising down the Santa Ana Freeway one Saturday afternoon, thoughts of falafel and lamb in our heads. Far from the madding crowds at Disneyland, Little Arabia is actually a rather desolate stretch of suburban backdrop pitched alongside a six-lane-wide boulevard, and unless your eagle eyes are open, it’s easy for the series of strip malls to dissolve into a blur. But before too long, we arrived at Sahara Falafel, a casual spot that some locals claim has the best falafel in town. The falafel is indeed good; the nutty chickpea nuggets have a lightly fried texture, and the insides are tender, without the dried and crumbly texture that dooms many falafel sandwiches.

Mighty makdous pickles at Sahara Falafel

I can’t pretend to be some kind of falafel hound, the sort who is driven into righteous indignation by the inability to find a falafel worthy of New York’s finest. I’m not even sure a great falafel is worth a long-distance haul, but this is a pretty good version of a standard. What makes me consider returning to Sahara, though, is their unexpectedly tantalizing homemade makdous pickle, a highlight of the day. Only after inquiring about the yellowish jar perched at the end of the counter did the owner somewhat sheepishly sell us a side (and then after some cajoling, offer the whole jar for 15 bucks).  The eggplant pickles are a tangy and satisfying pleasure, a scene-stealing cameo in an otherwise earnest docudrama. Stuffed full of walnuts and spices and served sopping with mustard-laced oil, the pickled eggplants are a study in different textures—slightly crisp walnuts and oozing soft eggplant flesh—but the fusion of eggplant and walnut flavors is creamy lusciousness.

A quick survey of other stores in neighborhood shows that amidst the steady hum of traffic and suburban anomie set in quarter-mile-long blocks, there are signs of community and shared tradition. In the windows of a boutique, hijab-clad mannequins advertise aspirational Muslim fashions while bookstores and hair salons draw a quiet parade of regulars. At Al Wadee, a sign advertises an iftar buffet special for the month of Ramadan. (Iftar is the meal served at night to break the day’s fast.) Even if you’re not fasting, you can pick up decent versions of classic snacks at Al Wadee, including a solid selection of manakeesh. These flatbreads, which are often likened to Levantine versions of pizza, can be larded with spice mixtures, cheese, ground meat, and my favorite, soukouk, the tangy dried Middle Eastern sausage. At Al Wadee and other spots in the area (Al-Amir Bakery and Al Sanabel), manakeesh are a popular and quick meal, made all the more delicious when it arrives fresh out of the oven.

All trips should culminate in a trip to a sweet shop. In our case, at Tripoli Pastry, the owner kept plying us with offers to sample freshly baked morsels, still excitingly warm and chewy. The long glass cases threaten a multitude of diabetic disasters, most made with copious quantities of honey or sugar plus walnut, date, cashew, almond, or pistachio accompaniment. Something to cut the tremendous sugary power is mandatory, and the mint tea does not disappoint—simple bags of tea are garnished with as many of fresh mint leaves as you can stuff down into your cup. With that, it’s time to venture back north before the honey on the tip of my tongue completely dissolves.

Sahara Falafel
590 S. Brookhurst St
Anaheim, CA 92804
311 S. Brookhurst St.
Anaheim, CA 92804
Tripoli Pastry
512 S. Brookhurst St. Ste. 5
Anaheim CA 92804

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