In Little Arabia, a pan-arab enclave near Disneyland that dates to the late ’80s, Kareem’s is the closest thing to an institution. Bethlehem native Mike Hawari and wife Nazarene have been open for 15 years in the back pocket of a strip mall, in a space that previously housed a Honey Baked Ham shop. The restaurant is named for the couple’s son Kareem, a word that also means “generous” in Arabic. The word clearly carries over to the menu. During my visit with Kareem’s proponent Dave Lieberman (OC Weekly), who introduced me to the restaurant, Nazarene Hawari doled out heaping portions of flavorful Middle Eastern comfort food.
The space is far from the most exciting aspect of the Kareem’s experience. The only compelling component is their shield of three swords, which represents power.
Kareem’s offers a full breakfast menu, including several dishes made with eggs and garbanzo beans, but most people come for lunch and end up ordering one thing: falafel. No wonder the menu describes Kareem’s as a “falafel empire.” You can get your falafel in a sandwich or on a plate with hummus, baba ganough, fuul or salad.
We ordered Falafel Plate with Baba Ganough ($8.69), featuring six pieces of falafel and a huge dollop of smoky baba ganough, which were dressed with olive oil and parsley. Falafel were crispy brown outside and supple inside, combining garbanzo beans mixed with parsley, garlic, baking soda, onions and secret “spices” that are fried in canola oil. A side-by-side showdown with Sahara Falafel, thee of the donut-shaped falafel, is probably necessary. In the meantime, subtle differences will continue to ping pong around my noggin as I debate what are likely the two best falafel peddlers in Orange County.
In case a quick dip in the baba ghanouj doesn’t provide enough of a flavor rush, Kareem’s provides containers of creamy sesame-flavored tahini sauce and spicy seed-studded chile sauce. Both are worth a drizzle or dunk.
If you’re looking to enjoy Kareem’s falafel in another location, the Hawaris now staff a stand at the Wholesome Choice food court in Irvine. They also started packaging their proprietary falafel mix, in case you prefer to form and fry the falafel yourself.
Kareem’s Hummos-Meat Pine Nuts ($9.99) is another must-try, featuring crusty nubs of filet mignon showered with crunchy almond shavings and pine nuts and plated in the middle of a rich crater of paprika-dusted hummos.
If filet isn’t your thing, Kareem’s has a number of other meat options, including chicken, lamb liver, sirloin steak and kufta kabob (ground lamb and beef mixed with onions, parsley and house spices). Then again, if you avoid meat altogether, Kareem’s sill offers a rewarding experience.