I’ve probably never thought that Middle Eastern food is the type of food that needs innovation and modernization. Give me some well-executed schwarma nearly any day of the week and I will be a happy man. Yet, Pita Jungle not only exists in the Phoenix area, but it has multiple locations that demonstrate a pattern of success. Oh, and it just oozes modern Middle Eastern.
Sierra Madre might be one of LA’s best-kept secrets. Tucked away just east of Pasadena, the town features an old school Main Street reminiscent of the supposed good old days. And just like many little towns of its type, there isn’t a whole lot to. Yet, there are at least a couple of restaurants and bars and we decided to try out Corfu, a Middle Eastern spot.
Straddling the campuses of Carnegie Mellon and Pitt, Craig Street is where ambitious students can often be found eating lunch or dinner between classes. On that street is a little Middle Eastern restaurant called Ali Baba, which I found myself eating at based on a high recommendation. The recommendation was mostly based on something that have called Kibbee Nayyee, which is a raw lamb dish that is apparently pretty hard to find.
While LA has its fair share of Middle-Eastern restaurants, Kabab Grill in Palms boasts something I haven’t seen elsewhere: its own pita oven. Growing up with the Middle-Eastern restaurants of southeastern Michigan, I just kind of assumed every place had their own oven, but in LA I learned this was not the case. Yet, a pita oven alone does not make a place great, so I was eager to see how this Syrian-flavored place would taste and hoped it didn’t taste like the blood and tears of civil war (too soon?).
Heading into Noho Royal Garden in North Hollywood, I kind of expected to find myself in a typical Middle-Eastern style restaurant. But no, there were no rugs on the wall, no decorative lamps or beads. Instead, it felt like I had just walked into a Mexican cabana. Part outside, part inside, with umbrellas, trees and stones, this was a perfect place to escape from work…well as long as the food was any good.
As a Jew who clearly doesn’t keep Kosher (see any entry on bacon, cheeseburgers or shellfish), I sometimes find it fun to eat a meal the way my Kosher brethren do. In LA this means a trip to Pico and Robertson, which my girlfriend affectionately calls “Little Israel,” although actual Israel can hardly be called “big.” Kosher restaurants either serve meat or dairy, so to take care of my unvegan needs, this Kosher pilgrimage took me to the meat-based Haifa Restaurant.
Walking into Bottega Louie in downtown for lunch, I really had no idea what to expect. My girlfriend had told me it was some sort of market, but I found that it was also a bustling restaurant. And this was no ordinary bustling restaurant. There wasn’t just one kitchen, but multiple kitchen-esque stations that were in plain view for everyone. There was movement everywhere and a waiting list to get a table. For lunch! I knew this place had to be good.
In the quest to finally find some good schwarma in LA, I made my way to a little Lebanese place called Sunnin Cafe. I have fond memories of delicious Lebanese food back in Michigan, so I hoped that this place would be at least a little awesome. Getting there was a little confusing, though, as it appeared as though there were two Sunnins, right across the street from each other. On further inspection, it looked like the larger of the two is unopened and the small place will be moving in there soon.
The inside of the little cafe gave the appearance of a generic diner. There were seats
at a counter and no more than ten small tables. The big difference, though, was the strong smell of the Middle East and the rotating spool of meat where a deep-fryer might typically belong. I also loved that they made no effort to hide the fact that the cooks were Hispanic. It’s a pretty widely known fact that kitchens of ethnic restaurants all over LA are filled with Hispanics, despite the fact that waiters and such fit into the ethnicity. It was refreshing to see that Sunnin didn’t hide that aspect of their business.
We ordered some “hommos” (love the spelling) to start things off.
Situated just off the main stretch of downtown El Segundo is The Hummus Factory. The name is really false advertising because it certainly is not a factory and also makes a lot more than just hummus. To be precise, they should have named it The Middle-Eastern Restaurant.
When it came time to order, I chose the Chicken Kabob Sandwich, which I assumed would be like schwarma. The only things that stood in my path to an unvegan lunch were cabbage and pickles, which I made sure to order without. The sandwich also came with salad or fries and I (surprisingly) opted for the fries. To top it off, I got a side of hummus in the expectation that the rest of my food would not quench my unvegan hunger. That proved to be a wise choice.