There's a moment in a cuisine's acculturation when a dish morphs into a movement. In Orange County, that moment belongs now to a multinational influx of Middle Eastern flatbreads.
Like banh mi before them, manakeesh have here become the accepted ambassadors of an entire region, pizza-like flatbreads thin as gauzy sheets of vellum. At Zait & Za'atar and Wraps Xpress, restaurants already in the purview of the county's most seasoned eaters, they're an herb-rubbed and meat-smeared gateway to the eastern Mediterranean.
Anaheim's Zait & Za'atar is a big step toward manakeesh modernity. The city's Little Arabia is already crowded with similarly specialized Lebanese bakeries, but Zait & Za'atar may be the most accessible. It's a case of aesthetics — brick-red walls and a counter set in stone — but, more important, one of clarity, as the restaurant plainly details every dish.
Each man'ousheh is slid into a superheated oven, where its edges curl and blacken, its toppings crisp and its cheese (should you add any) dissolves into molten flows. The restaurant's signature flatbread is the eponymous zait and za'atar, a Levantine essential splashed with olive oil and dusted with za'atar, a spritely spice mix of thyme, oregano and sesame seeds. Equally indispensible is the lahmajoun, ground beef, tomato and onion worked into a meaty spread and sluiced to your liking with lemon juice.
There are some uncommon treats too, like the man'ousheh topped with kishik, a breakfast favorite of dried yogurt and cracked wheat.
In addition to being some of Orange County's finest flatbreads, Zait & Za'atar's manakeesh also present Lebanese cuisine in eminently familiar terms. So do the restaurant's wraps, springy saj bread rolled around cumin-laced sujuk sausage or tender chicken shawarma. Before you know it, you'll end up nibbling on the restaurant's excellent beef kibbe and loading up on spinach- and meat-stuffed pastries.
Wraps Xpress in Irvine takes Turkey's flatbread culture and rolls it up to go. What results seems to the American mind equal parts pizza and burrito, a hybrid fast-casual food that defies the restaurant's innocuous name. The staff plays up those similarities, but the key here is customization.
Yet Wraps Xpress keeps to its Turkish roots. First comes your choice of fillings: doner kebab, chicken, beef, spinach, labneh and za'atar. Once a selection is made, the flatbread is set on a conveyor belt and pulled slowly through an oven. Then it's time for the additional toppings: lettuce, olives, jalapeños, pepperoncini, pickles, cheese, hummus and yogurt. When everything has been decided, an employee performs a few artful folds before handing over your wrap.
Like Zait & Za'atar's saj wraps, these exist somewhere between tradition and whole-cloth creation. But Wraps Xpress' distinct hybrid produces admirable results. The doner kebab packs a pepper-powered bite; the labneh is enlivened with olives, mint and olive oil.
The restaurant is also doing its part with desserts, including burma, Turkish rolled baklava. There's pistachio, chocolate and walnut, but the best might just be the cinnamon, a dense, syrupy log that tastes like a crumb donut.
ZAIT & ZA'ATAR
LOCATION: 510 N. Brookhurst St., Suite 106, Anaheim; (714) 991-9996.
PRICE: Saj wraps, $1.99 to $4.99; manakeesh, $1.49 to $3.25; sandwiches and combination plates, $4.49 to $8.99.
DETAILS: Open daily 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Lot parking. Credit cards accepted.
LOCATION: 6779 Quail Hill Parkway, Irvine; (949) 387-5709.
PRICE: Wraps, $5.98 to $6.44; sides and desserts, $1.15 to $2.
DETAILS: Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Lot parking. Credit cards accepted.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times