A visit to Anaheim's South Brookhurst Street, although it lies a few miles west of Disneyland, is a lot like taking a stroll through a Middle Eastern souk.
Between Lincoln and Katella avenues, Brookhurst is a bustling thoroughfare of Eastern markets, tiny halal butcher shops and good neighborhood Persian and Arab restaurants--such as Ali Baba and Sahara Falafel.
Ali Baba is a Persian restaurant, and a very good one. Owner Kamran Kasmaei and his wife--and chef--Sima prepare nearly everything from scratch in this 25-year-old establishment that offers about 20 tables. All the food, down to the simplest kebabs, tastes like genuine home cooking, rather than restaurant food.
To start your meal, you get a basket of hot pita bread with half a dozen pickled peppers and a few cubes of Bulgarian feta, as well as the obligatory Persian accompaniment of a raw onion (yes, you're supposed to chew on it).
All the yogurt-based appetizers are good, particularly the mast-o-khiyar, that refreshing salad (found under many names from the Mediterranean to India) of chopped cucumbers dressed in mint and creamy yogurt.
Two light, flavorful starters are the dolmas and kashk-o-bademjan. The former are bite-sized stuffed grape leaves with a tender rice filling. The kashk-o-bademjan is a pureed eggplant dip topped with thickened yogurt and swirls of crumbled mint.
One thing that makes Ali Baba unusual is its policy of offering a special rice pilaf (polo) along with your stew or kebab for $2 extra. You can have a tart, fragrant barberry pilaf (zereshk polo), or a sweet-sour cherry pilaf (albalu polo) or any number of other distinctive Iranian rice dishes for just pennies per mouthful.
Naturally, there are kebabs. There's a meaty lamb kebab that comes on the bone and, unless otherwise requested, cooked medium, or slightly pink. Oddly, the best kebab is not meat but fish. It's a large piece of whitefish, broiled absolutely crisp on both sides; remarkably, it remains moist in the center.
If you fancy chicken, there's an excellent chicken barg: charbroiled chunks of white meat perfectly blackened around the edges.
But I'd gladly pass that kebab up in favor of a luxurious stew called chelo khoresht fesenjan, flavored with ground walnuts and tart pomegranate juice. This might be the best fesenjan I've ever tasted in a restaurant. What makes it special? The intense chicken flavor that comes through in every spoonful of its thick, rich sauce.
You'd better like rose water if you plan to order one of Ali Baba's homemade Persian desserts.
Bamieh, which looks like a French madeleine cookie, is a sweet, oily cake. Zulbia is much better--it's crisp, meltingly sweet tubes of fried batter, drenched in honey. It resembles the Indian jalebi or the American county fair funnel cake. For purists, there also are small squares of good pistachio baklava. And Turkish coffee is a fine way to finish up.
Ali Baba is moderately priced. Appetizers are $3.49 to $5.99. Entrees are $7.99 to $12.99.
Sahara Falafel isn't a restaurant, but rather a mini-mall takeout stall--although there are four or five unadorned tables. The food is simply terrific.
Owner Mahmud Salem's 4-year-old eatery is decorated with a few pyramids and camels painted on the walls (it's staffed by Jordanians and Egyptians) and dominated by two large vertical spits, on which exemplary versions of beef and chicken shawarma (which you may know as gyros) are constantly browning.
Like great counter workers cutting pastrami in a Manhattan deli, the folks at Sahara Falafel really know how to slice meat. They shear thin, crisp, beautifully browned slices of lean, subtly spiced chicken or beef off the individual spits with the expertise of surgeons. Then they stuff it into warm grilled pitas, along with tomatoes, pickles and lettuce. Thimble-sized plastic cups of tahini sauce and a powerful garlic sauce enhance their creations.
Usually there are some gorgeous rotisserie chickens twirling slowly on a spit. These are organic chickens that have been meticulously cleaned, bathed in oil and rubbed with a flavoring mixture that has a thyme-and-garlic base. They are every bit as good as those at the celebrated Zankou Chicken or El Pollo Inka, both of which have branches in the area.
You can't fault the vegetarian dishes here. The stuffed grape leaves, six to an order, are moist, smoke-scented cylinders with a rich rice stuffing. Hummus is served in a thick puddle, with a depression in the middle that is garnished with a splash of good Middle Eastern olive oil.
The parsley salad tabbouleh is deliciously fresh here and tossed with a judicious amount of chopped tomato and mint. The eggplant dip baba ghannouj is smooth and creamy. It has smoky overtones and is sneakily filling.
Foul mesdames isn't on the menu, so you have to ask for it. This is the traditional Egyptian breakfast dish--dried fava beans simmered nearly to mush and served warm seasoned with chopped garlic and olive oil. This is a completely authentic version, and it's great with pita and a few pickled radishes.
I should mention the falafel that gives the place its name. The huge globes of pureed beans are deep brown on the outside and moss green from herbs inside. One of these falafel sandwiches is a meal for a very hungry person or a light lunch for two.
I've been here twice, and they always seem to be out of baklava, the only dessert they advertise. The good news is that you can go across the street to the Sinbad Ranch Market, where just about any Middle Eastern pastry your heart desires is sold.
Sahara Falafel is inexpensive. Sandwiches and plates are $2.99 to $7.99.
Ali Baba, 100 S. Brookhurst St., Anaheim. (714) 774-5632. Open daily, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Discover, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Sahara Falafel, 590 S. Brookhurst St., Anaheim. (714) 491-0400. Open 10 a.m.-10 p.m. weekdays, and 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Cash only.