Anaheim's Little Arabia provides tastes, comforts of home

05/07/2015 03:18 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2016

This article first published in the Daily Pilot's new Orange County section, Weekend. The Daily Pilot is a Los Angeles Times community newspaper.

Tucked in the back of an alley lined with various shops, restaurants and stores, Aleppo's Kitchen brings to life the culture and food of one of the Arab world's ancient cities: Aleppo, Syria's oldest and largest.

Syrians' struggle for freedom that began with the March 2011 uprising has had a devastating effect on Aleppo's people, ages-old mansions, alleys, souks, heritage and spirit. The city that in 1986 was named one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites, so designated because they are thought to have special cultural or physical significance, has been reduced to rubble, burned buildings and heartbreaking stories of torture, separation and death.

But over at Anaheim's Little Arabia District, the restaurant, with its Ottoman-style tea machines and Arab culture-inspired artwork, provides a snapshot of Aleppo and stands as a constant reminder of home, said Nidal Hajomar, who opened the business in summer 2013.

"We used to live there and moved because it's not safe anymore for me and my family. We lost everything in Syria," Hajomar said. "I knew my wife is excellent with food. She cooks by measurement and recipe, not the old-fashioned way. So we said, 'We will open a restaurant in Anaheim.'"

The taste of kibbeh, one of Syria's specialty dishes, the smell of Turkish coffee, the sound of Egypt's legendary Um Kalthoum songs playing overhead, the hookah smoke dancing in the air and the gatherings of family and friends are reminiscent of the Arab world, and it is what Little Arabia District portrays with its shops and restaurants.

The district that runs between Euclid Street and Beach Boulevard in West Anaheim and from the 91 Freeway to the southern border of the city is recognized unofficially as Little Arabia.

"I think the Little Arabia community is not only a positive for the businesses and residents, but for the entire general population of that area and all of the city," Anaheim Councilman Jordan Brandman said. "This is the American experience. Little Arabia, like Little Saigon, like Koreatown, are a vital part of our fabric as Americans. It is only a good thing, and it leads to better understanding of where we all came from."

Although the city doesn't officially recognize the district, the Anaheim Orange County Visitors and Convention Bureau lists it on its website as one of the places to visit when in Anaheim, a place where "the best of Arab hospitality awaits you."

There was never a plan to create a Little Arabia District in Anaheim. It all began 33 years ago when Sammy Khouraki opened Altayebat Market, a small grocery shop where customers can find a variety of fresh bread, teas, nuts, honey, tea biscuits, vegetables and fruits not usually available at ordinary grocery stores, like mulberries and green almonds.

Today, Khouraki has handed the management of the store to his son, Romy, 35, but continues to work there. He asks customers if they need help, advising them on which kind of honey to try and cracking jokes here and there.

"We made it," Khouraki said of Little Arabia.

Ethnic spices, foods, snacks and bread aren't the only items found at Altayebat. Stepping into Altayebat is something like stepping into a modern souk -- or Arab marketplace -- in the Middle East. Parking spots are scarce, and the store is crammed with goods and people having to move steadily to make room for one another.

Other businesses followed, including La Mirage Pastries & Chocolate, Knafeh Cafe and Kareem's Restaurant -- then hookah lounges, hair salons, clothing stores that cater to modestly dressed women, more restaurants and shops, office buildings and nonprofits catering to the Arab and immigrant community.

Sacramento resident Mona Aboueljoud, 49, visits Little Arabia with her husband and children a couple of times a year.

"It's humbling for me when I come here," the Lebanese native said. "This country is really great. It accommodates people and gives them the chance in order to make a living and live happily and comfortably and have your own rights. And you pick up a lot of good habits they have here, and you don't lose your identity. You are still the same person, but it enhances you."

Little Arabia serves multiple purposes, said Rashad Al-Dabbagh, managing partner of a new marketing venture that promotes the district.

"New immigrants, students, refugees, asylum seekers from the Arab world usually come to Anaheim when they first move to the area, because it helps them assimilate and keeps them in touch with their homeland," Al-Dabbagh said.

"In Anaheim, nonprofit community organizations help resettle refugees and direct them to resources and find them jobs, while restaurants, shops and lounges help them reconnect with their culture, food and meet new people. For second- and third-generation Arab Americans, Little Arabia keeps them connected to their roots and heritage."

The area used to be referred to as Arab Town or Little Gaza because of the concentration of Arab shops and restaurants. Then, in 2010, Al-Dabbagh and two friends, Omar Masry and Roqaya Ashmawy, began promoting it on social media platforms as Little Arabia.

"The reasons we started promoting the Little Arabia District were to recognize the Arab American community in West Anaheim, to help improve local businesses and promote this area to those outside Anaheim as a cultural destination," he said.

The three held meetings with city and state officials in an attempt to improve the district and officially designate it as Little Arabia, but that goal hasn't fully been realized yet.

Brandman said he hopes to see the area officially designated, much like Little Saigon in Westminster and Garden Grove and Koreatown in Los Angeles.

"It is important to officially designate Little Arabia District in order to recognize the contributions of Arab Americans to Anaheim both economically and culturally," Al-Dabbagh said.

"The fact is, for many years, Arab community members throughout Southern California visited Anaheim to shop and eat, which resulted in tremendous contributions to the economy of Anaheim. An official designation will bring more attention to the area, which will help the dozens of small businesses thrive and ultimately have a positive effect on Anaheim."

Official or not, the Little Arabia name endures.

On Easter Sunday, Yolande Smith, 47, sipped Turkish coffee while waiting for her food order at Al Wadee Bakery & Restaurant. The Garden Grove resident was visiting Little Arabia to order her family's Easter feast.

She said her family loves the food and the hospitality in the area.

"I feel very privileged that I live so close to good food," Smith said. "They're super-nice people with their own unique culture. When you can't travel, you have places like Little Arabia, and it introduces you to other people and cultures. It pushes you to have an open mind."