Anaheim is known for one thing. Even locally, people living in Southern California only think of Anaheim as home of the world’s most famous mouse. But if you look a little deeper, you’ll find some cool culture. One such place is Little Arabia.
Arab immigration following World War Two led to an enclave of unincorporated area in west Anaheim to be a hub. As the area was called Garza Island, it came to be known as the Gaza Strip. Over the next couple of decades, Arab businesses were forced to close due to a rise in anti-Arab sentiment, and the population scattered. But in the 1990s, a new wave of immigrants from the Arab world revitalized the area.
In 2010, local businesses launched a campaign to get the official designation of Little Arabia for the area, centered on Brookhurst Street between Lincoln Avenue and Karelia Avenue (roughly), and the area is now home to literally dozens of Arabic restaurants, shops, and businesses.
The Arab world is known for its hospitality, and Little Arabia offers that to visitors. Warm welcomes greet regulars and obvious tourists like me, shop owners switching effortlessly between Arabic and English, but always with the same gracious smile. My day starts at Forn Al Hara for their famous manaeesh, flatbread with zaatar and, in my case, melted cheese. This is the perfect breakfast food. For those unfamiliar with zaatar, it is a spice blend tasting strongly of thyme, and is delicious.
Forn Al Hara also had another treat, a thick pancake wrapped around walnuts and soaked with honey. It is a traditional Ramadan snack, and was perfect while waiting for my manaeesh. And in true hospitable fashion, I am offered another since the flatbread took a bit longer than planned. Score! (I wish my host a Ramadan Mubarak, a meaningful holiday. Graciousness must be returned.)
Little Arabia is home to a number of markets, and I pop into Altayebat to take a look around. I have never seen so many kinds of eggplants! I load up on some tea (of course), dates (also of course) in several forms – plain pitted ones, date cookies, and date paste for baking – and some red lentils because the price was great. Now to figure out how to use the date paste…
Nara Bistro is my next stop. It is mainly a hookah bar, and while I choose not to smoke today, I am relieved to find out that they not only sterilize the mouthpieces between customers (of course), but they also use disposable hoses so no customer is exposed to the possible Covid of the one who came before. Add to that a simply stunning indoor/outdoor space, and Nara is the perfect spot to have a pot of cardamom tea.
While some ethnic neighborhoods feel more like tourist traps than authentic neighborhoods, Little Arabia is still home to a large Arab population, with more than 2% of Anaheim of Arab descent, as of 2019. Storefronts here are in both English and Arabic, and both languages are spoken pretty much everywhere. I pass clothing shops selling traditional outfits, and dozens wearing those along the street.
A pastry is always in order after a pot of tea. Knafeh Cafe sells many different kinds (and I buy some baklava for later), but I am here for the namesake. Knafeh is made of shredded phyllo and cheese, topped with pistachios and honey. It is sweet, crunchy, gooey, and salty all in one, and my piece lasts about three minutes. I barely resist the temptation to get another, but there is more food to come.
Finally, lunch. No trip to Little Arabia would be complete without falafel and/or shawarma, and Sahara Falafel sells great versions of both. A falafel sandwich for lunch, and a combo platter to take home for dinner, and I am a happy guy.
Anaheim isn’t a place many would think of when it comes to an authentic cultural experience, but a morning spent in Little Arabia will convince you otherwise. Have some amazing food, grab some cool groceries, and maybe smoke a hookah. But no matter what you choose to do, you’ll revel in the hospitality of a traditional Arabic neighborhood, right here in Southern California. Salaam!
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