Palestinian lamb roast
Olive Tree Restaurant, Anaheim CA
In the spirit of the famed annual Explorers Club dinner, Los Angeles food adventurers LA Gastronauts arrange monthly dinners around Southern California featuring unusual, ethnic and otherwise unique cuisine. These dinners can take the form of a “pop-up” with a restaurant hosting for a specialty chef, or as was the case recently at Anaheim, California’s Olive Tree Restaurant, a specialty signature dish presented by the restaurant. Olive Tree is quietly tucked into a horseshoe-shaped strip mall in the area of Anaheim known as “Little Arabia” (alternately “Little Gaza”), their base of operations for providing home-style preparations of a wide variety of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes. The inside dining area was reserved for the Gastronauts dinner and owner Yusuf “Joe” Abdo was having to turn customers away while they prepared the room for the feast. Abdo introduced me to Nancy, the person responsible for turning a whole lamb into the gastronomic extravaganza known as kharouf mahshi – whole roasted lamb stuffed with rice, meat and almonds. Abdo explained that the dish is popular throughout the Arabic world, and although the dish is presented with the limbs on separate trays according to Islamic tradition, their version is done Palestinian-style (with the lamb presented whole on a single tray).
Since I arrived early I was offered a drink to hold me over until the feast began; I asked for something traditional and was presented a can of Vimto, a carbonated beverage flavored with grape, raspberry and currant juice as well as herbs and spices. The drink originated in the UK in 1890, although the original version was not carbonated and Abdo wanted me to try it so that I could compare it to his homemade version during the feast. In between setting up tables and bringing out the “side dishes”, he would occasionally bring something over to the table for me to try, such as a savory beef and lamb-filled arayes kufta; the crispy grilled pita pocket was lightly spiced and light enough not to spoil my appetite for the food orgy to come. At one point he arrived with a greyish-brown chunk of unknown origin impaled on the tines of a fork, stating, “Hey, you’re adventurous – try this”. As the taste registered on my tongue he informed me that it was lamb kidney, and although I enjoy mammal kidney regardless of the sometimes musty taste, this was mellow and flavorful (which he attributed to the super-secret cooking technique). As the last regular patron was leaving, he attempted to pay for his meal with American Express; the cashier responded with, “We don’t take American Express, only Arabic Express – cash!”
The “side dishes” and starters were bough out around the same time the Gastronauts arrived; huge platters of hummus and mutabal (an eggplant dip), fresh Medjool dates and fattoush (a toasted pita chip salad packed with parsley, cucumbers, radishes, tomatoes and scallions and liberally garnished with sumac and mint) seemed about to collapse the table they rested on. At the end of the table was a platter of chopped pieces of mixed organ meats which included kidney, liver and a slightly spicy spleen. Abdo had two soda fountain bubblers off to the side dispensing a sweet apricot nectar that made the perfect mixer for the illicit hooch smuggled in pocket flasks and his homemade “Vimto”. The later beverage was heavy with rose water that you could smell well before the cup met your lips; the deep red brew had a rich cherry taste and undoubtedly would permanently stain your innards – it was sweet but tasted nothing like the Vimto soda I was offered earlier.
The main course arrived in a shroud of aluminum foil and placed on a round table in the center of the room atop a regal purple tablecloth; once the metallic veil was lifted there was a round of applause as an entire lamb sprung forth, meat hanging off in tatters and yellow rice spilling from its gut like an army of maggots. Abdo and several other of the staff began dismembering the beast, heaping the flesh in a mound on top. Under normal circumstances i would have had no contenders for the choice bits (eyes, tongue, brains); however, these were not normal circumstances as several of the Gastronauts had similar designs on the head meats. Since the Gastronauts are a civilized bunch, we ceremoniously split the prize among us so that anyone who wanted to taste it could, and it was worth the wait. Some of the lamb was added to a deep tray filled with bamia creating a wet stew rich in tomato and jam-packed with the cutest baby okra you ever saw in your life. The meat was strong without the gamey flavor that often accompanies lamb; the hours of roasting had not taken any of the moisture out and it was absolutely some of the best lamb I’ve ever eaten. The mountain of yellow rice the carcass rested on was prepared separately but the rice that had been cooked inside the lamb took on the appearance (and a little of the taste) of dirty rice, and between the two was my starch of choice.
Dessert was a sweet, sticky and flaky baklawa laced with custardy cheese and dusted with pistachio dust; trays of simple black tea complemented the pastry and was just enough to finish the feast. Olive Tree’s menu states that hookahs are available for $16, and although I don’t have the ghost of Walter Raleigh riding on my back I think I would have had a few puffs if one was brought out; fortunately there wasn’t one in sight. Both the lamb and I had been stuffed well past stupid, but Abdo suggested people take home the leftovers and like a crack whore I packed the meat and rice into a Styrofoam container and headed out. The children tell how Mary had a little lamb but had she been present at Olive Tree for the Palestinian lamb roast, I have no doubt she would have had a lot of lamb.
Olive Tree Restaurant
512 S. Brookhurst Street
Anaheim CA 92804
GPS Coordinates: 33°49’33.56″N 117°57’30.50″W