Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Kareem’s Restaurant

Southern California’s endless contradictions make it the country’s most interesting metropolitan region, if also the most frustrating. Take, for example, the mythology of Orange County as corrosively artificial and the spiritual home of the subprime mortgage.

On one hand, the O.C.’s most popular restaurant, at least among its coastal, pre-recession glitterati, may be Mastro’s Ocean Club. According to Irene Virbila, the Ocean Club’s “concept is so simple” that it “doesn't need a high-end chef to execute its menu. Line cooks will do.” (Actually, they won’t do, as the food does not approach even the most liberal definition of “edible.”) On the other hand, Kareem’s Restaurant in inland Anaheim is a bastion of traditional Lebanese cooking, emphasizing quality ingredients and painstaking preparations. In Kareem’s 12 years of operation, Mike and Nancy Hawari, the co-owners, co-chefs, and sole employees, have not served any dish that they did not make or prepare completely, the very antithesis of the “collateralized” debt obligation.

Anaheim’s contradictions are staggering; David Addington would consider them Manichean. The suburb is the home of Disneyland, which is ludicrously marketed as the Happiest Place on Earth. Yet the uber-American theme park shares a freeway exit (the Ball Road exit off the 5) with Kareem’s and its menacingly named neighborhood, “Little Gaza,” whose referent could be the Least Happiest Place on Earth and where an apparent majority of the storefronts have signage in Arabic script.

A seemingly ubiquitous contradiction, Southern California has relegated yet another sophisticated practitioner of a traditional cuisine to the sterile, rootless home of the strip center. At least Kareem’s shares this dubious distinction with such gastronomic stalwarts as Jitlada, Park’s Barbeque, and Kiriko. Unlike those establishments, Kareem’s tiny and sparsely decorated dining room has little physical charm, though it is too clean to be a dive. Still, the owners provided a gracious welcome which was all the charm we needed.

While Ed and I waited for AO to navigate South L.A. County’s smorgasbord of freeways, we noshed on a delectable order of falafel and hummous. Kareem’s falafel is crispy and moist, its interior green from fresh parsley. The hummous is creamy with spicy undertones. Mrs. Hawari told us that she makes the hummous twice a day, beginning on the preceding evening when she soaks the beans, and then finishes the recipe with onion, garlic, and spices. Circular pitas accompanied the platter, and though fresh and fluffy, their spartan flavor made them not worth the precious stomach space. (If I learned anything in Texas, it is not to fill up on irrelevant carbohydratic foodstuffs.)

AO eventually arrived, and we got down to the business of eating. For his part, AO was totally useless. He ordered a beautiful dish of sautéed sirloin steak diced with onions and tomatoes and just inhaled it. Ed and I got bupkis, no samples, nothing—just AO’s excuse that he was ready to eat that day and that he loved it.

Tempted by the sautéed lamb liver, I asked Mrs. Hawari what to order. Her only counsel was that everything is good and that if it weren’t, they would not serve it. Kareem’s may be the only restaurant where that reply is justified, but it was less than helpful. So I pressed further, and she confessed to a predilection for the kufta kabob.

Kareem’s kufta consists of two long grilled sausages made of ground lamb and beef, onion, parsley, and other spices. Served with rice, they are tender and have a rustic spiciness that I really enjoyed. They are not unduly moist or geysers of fat like those Texan links. Mrs. Hawari told us that they make the sausage with their own grinder and source the meat from a trusted local halal butcher, insisting on low fat quantities. I couldn’t resist ordering it again the following day, postponing the lamb’s liver to a later date.

Not until the end of our meal did Mrs. Hawari serve our plate of glistening baba ganough. But we quickly realized there was no delay or miscue in the kitchen. She made it from scratch for the order. Her baba is intensely flavorful. It has a rich, creamy texture and a nuanced spiciness that reveals itself a few seconds into each bite. For Ed, the experience was epiphanic as he now, quite understandably, braves the Santa Ana Freeway once a week for baba and kufta.

The only misfire at Kareem’s is the fuul, a plate of diced favas mixed with garlic and lemon juice. The languid favas aren’t bad, but they lack the farmer’s market freshness that the rest of our meal had.

After this gem of a lunch, I wanted something sweet. But the Hawaris do not make dessert and thus they do not serve dessert. This rigor, while laudable, is also annoying; I don’t think they even serve coffee. All they could offer were recommendations for their favorite local bakeries. But after a three-hour lunch break, the bakeries would not be in the cards.

Kareem’s Restaurant
1208 S. Brookhurst St.
(714) 778-6829


cheerioh said...

Another great write up with a great intro. If there wasn't so many meaningful things to write about the food, I'd love to see an essay on the pseudo-phenomenon of great restaurants in strip malls (there's a few in the Torrance/Gardena area as well).
Also: mildly surprised to find Park's and Kirko both have websites now.

Steve said...

Thank you. Jitlada used to have a website if you can believe that. The strip mall phenomenon is a function of poor urban planning rather than proprietors' intentions. In much of L.A., that's all there is and rents are affordable.

Where do you go in Torrance/Gardena?

Brooke said...

Bravo! Thanks for the introduction to what reads like one of the best Middle Eastern restaurants around!

Gaba ganoush made to order?! Uh, hello! Why am I still sitting here typing?

gassing up my car,