A history of falafels and so much more at Kareem’s Restaurant


For the past 20 years, Nesrine Omari has dedicated herself to making the best falafel in town.

“Everybody knows if you want falafel, you have to come here,” said Omari, the Palestinian owner of Kareem’s Restaurant, on Brookhurst Street in Anaheim.

“Other restaurants have everything, but they don’t specialize in one thing,” she said. “I always say, ‘Specialize in one thing, make it good, and customers will come to you.’”


When Omari and her husband, Mike Hawari, opened Kareem’s in 1996, it was the first Middle Eastern restaurant in Anaheim.

“It was scary,” Omari said. “I thought, ‘Who’s going to come here?’”

At the time, Anaheim’s Little Arabia was burgeoning — the city’s Arab American Council and the Arab World Newspaper were established in the same year — so Kareem’s couldn’t rely solely on Arab customers. But almost immediately, Omari said, the restaurant attracted diners of all ethnicities.

“We were so famous,” he said. “Within a few months of opening, everyone was talking about us.”

While Kareem’s serves a range of Arabic food, including hummus, baba ghanoush, stuffed grape leaves and kofta, it’s the falafel — small, deep-fried patties made of ground chickpeas — that the restaurant is best known for. Omari said the recipe, which also combines cilantro, parsley, onions, garlic and “secret spices,” comes from “back home” and has stayed the same through the restaurant’s two decades of operation.

Six pieces of falafel a la carte cost $4, a falafel wrap is $6 and a falafel plate, which includes six pieces plus hummus, is $10. The menu also features breakfast and extensive vegetarian and vegan offerings.

Omari started working at the restaurant part-time, helping her husband on the lunch shift while their three children, Nora, Marwa and Kareem, were young. As the kids grew older, she spent more time at Kareem’s. But in 2010, everything changed.

That year, Hawari was diagnosed with lung cancer, and suddenly Omari was responsible not only for caring for her sick husband, but also keeping the restaurant afloat.

“Every morning I would go to Fountain Valley for his chemo and radiology. Then I’d take him home,” Omari recalled. “Then I’d come to the restaurant, go to the market, do my shopping, do prep, cook and open by 11 a.m. or 12 p.m. Normally we opened at 8, so people were mad. ‘Why are you open late?’ they’d say, but I couldn’t tell them.”

In 2012, he died.

Kareem’s had already been struggling during the two years that Hawari was sick, Omari explained, and after his death, the family decided to temporarily close the restaurant.

“Me and my kids were in a mess, and we didn’t know what to do,” she said.

Omari considered selling the business but ultimately decided against it.

“Me and my kids had a meeting, and we said that we’re going to continue what he started,” she said. “He spent 17 years of his life here. He would come in early and go home late. We had a good reputation and the best food.”

Five months after the temporary closure, they were back in business. But getting all their old customers back wasn’t easy.

“People didn’t know we were open,” Omari said. “People thought Kareem’s Restaurant had closed down for good.”

But within a year, business was booming again, and Omari was enjoying accolades for her food. She also received the Legislature’s Woman of Distinction Award from Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton).

“It makes you feel strong, motivated,” Omari said. “You want to do more. You want to do better.”

Now, in addition to the restaurant, Omari has a side business selling her falafel mix. The batter, which can be purchased at Kareem’s and Arabic grocery stores in Little Arabia, is something like store-bought cookie dough — open the package, scoop out the portion and cook.

Omari said her customers are excited to be able to make falafel so easily at home.

“I had a customer who told me, ‘I take the mix and tell my husband that I made it, and he loves me. He wakes up in the morning and he finds breakfast on the table, so he’s happy.’ I told her, ‘I’m happy too!’”

She also sells the mix to restaurants in Southern California and hopes it can eventually be sold in bigger grocery stores like Whole Foods and Albertsons.

“I’m sure he’s happy,” Omari said of her husband about the restaurant’s success. “We’ve survived 20 years in Anaheim. People say, ‘What I like about you is it’s consistent.’ Other restaurants, it’s different, because they change the cooks.

“But here, I cook and my husband used to cook. Everything inside, it’s me.”

Kareem’s Restaurant is at 1208 S. Brookhurst St. in Anaheim. It is open every day at 10 a.m. except Wednesdays. Call (714) 778-6829 for more information.