Nearly half a billion people inhabit the Middle East, a region that sprawls from Morocco all the way to Iran and comprises nearly 19 countries, that is, because the Palestinians seem intent on taking their chances on statehood at the United Nations this fall. While portions of southern California share the same arid climate as the Middle East, the various cuisines of the vast Middle East are popularly conflated into something sunny and light. Falafel and tabbouleh, both Levantine staples, have long been popular among the unusual breed of people who are acolytes of Dennis! Kucinich. For carnivores, the smattering of kebabs and of course the shawarma, or jahy-roh as it is known in most parts of America, constitute the full breadth of the Middle Eastern diet.
However, these items would not seem to provide the succor requisite by inhabitants of the Arab World--a narrow corner of which is today’s topic--and you may have heard is unstable politically, fraught with autocracy and theocracy, howbeit now under sustained challenge, riddled by poverty and war, but nothing if not gritty. Amidst such strife, the Arab peoples would seem to prize comfort in their food and concomitantly soulfulness. While there is outstanding Middle Eastern food in Los Angeles, as a general matter, it tends to be, to adapt the embarrassing Angelenan coinage, Cal-Levantine in nature.
To eat lustful, comforting Arab food, shorn of any sense of a Californian sensibility, for example, what a Hamas fighter might crave after assassinating a few collaborators and then joining his friends in a game of whack-a-mole with the IDF, the intrepid Angeleno must venture down to the Olive Tree in Anaheim’s Little Gaza section. While the Olive Tree may be initially unsettling to the kafir, the restaurant’s lusty, heartfelt food assuages those anxieties with the ease that it soothes the locals’ craving for a taste of the old country or, as it were, the occupied territory.
The Olive Tree occupies a drab dining room in an anonymous strip center, minimally decorated with Arab bric-a-brac, junk really, with the only noticeable color coming from the green and red in the small Jordanian and Palestinian flags, the so-called Flags of the Arab Revolt (designed of course by a Brit who later supported the Balfour Declaration before reclaiming what I am sure was his deeply held anti-Semitism) that hang by the front door.
At 7:30 or so, despite being moderately busy, not a single female customer was present, and the man who exited the restroom had an addled, malevolent gaze directed at no one in particular. My brother and I hoped his peculiar behavior was the product of nothing more than cocaine. Did I mention that we were the only Jews, not that anyone would care or notice since we were without our Jew-caps, and in Anaheim of all places, a “town somewhere between Buchenwald and Belsen” according to Ed? That is now two distinct sets of anxieties with which we were forced to grapple.
We ordered the two specials of the day, a lamb shank with rice and the meatballs in yogurt or, kibbe labneh and then took in the scene. The well-coiffed chef with movie star looks toiled assiduously in the open kitchen behind a deli counter of sorts. We attempted to keep abreast of our intoxicated friend, but our eyes could only follow those massive portions of lamb being distributed to the tables and which could have been served in a mead hall feast. I read the menu carefully, but saw no item described as a full-fledged Iftar. What could we have missed?
Nothing as it turned out. An order of the lamb shank was a feast for one. After they brought our shank, two middle-aged gentlemen, who by their physiognomies could have suffered at least a few scrapes at the hands of TSA, ordered by simply pointing at our shanks as if we were the experts, two Jews from Pepper Pike, Ohio. By this point, any lingering unease of ours was neutralized.
Most importantly, the shank was so tender, so delicious that our server’s failure to provide us with knives could have been a stroke of the restaurant’s bravado or maybe mere server forgetfulness. Regardless, only the four tines of our forks were needed to carve the shank up into bite-sized portions. Accompanying the shank was the Olive Tree’s version of an Arabian peninsular rice dish called kabsa, a fantastic and hearty agglomeration of innumerable spices, deftly balancing, inter alia, cinnamon, cardamom, and saffron plus currants and almonds. I asked our waitress what spices the chef used, but she declined to answer as if I might steal the recipe.
The kibbee labneh was equally as satisfying. The labneh yogurt was served like a tangy soup-sauce, with old-fashioned kibbee intermixed with bulgur wheat and spices. I remain infatuated with what was for me a dish of first impression. The thickly textured hummus also exuded hominess and careful preparation.
The Olive Tree’s traditional Arabic coffee was just as I like it: ugly and unsweetened. Before making the trek back to antipodal Beverly-La Brea, we walked over to the Forn Al Hara bakery and shared assorted baklava and other treats which in that late hour were fresh and restrained in their sweetness, a fitting finale to a surprisingly fun dinner.
The Olive Tree
512 South Brookhurst Street, Suite 3