Some people refer to the mile-long stretch of Brookhurst Street between Lincoln and Ball as Little Gaza, but that doesn’t begin to cover the neighborhood’s breadth and depth. No spot captures Little Arabia’s pan-Arab flavor like Olive Tree, a restaurant that Palestine native Abu Ahmad opened in 2005, serving classics from almost every nation in the region.
Ahmad moved to the States in 1967 and worked as a textile engineer. He retired in 2000 and was still a long way from being taken out to pasture, so he bought a restaurant called Beirut in Brookhurst Plaza, next to a popular hookah shop. The space is simple, with just eight tables, a flat screen television in the corner playing Arabic programming, and murals of both Bethlehem and the namesake olive tree.
You’ll find kebabs galore, but it’s Jordanian chef Um Alaa’s daily specials that make Olive Tree a destination. Alaa produces dishes like Egyptian Molokhia, combining okra leaves with chicken and rice; Saya Deia, whole roasted tilapia; and Jordanian Mansaf, rice with beef cooked in yogurt.
Fattit Hommus ($6.99) took chickpea dip to new heights, featuring warm hommus blended with tahini, lime juice and garlic, topped with layer of yogurt, showered with pine nuts, layered with crispy pita and dusted with paprika and cumin. That last ingredient is key, since Ahmad insisted cumin “kills the gases.”
Since meat is featured so prominently on the Olive Tree menu, we couldn’t resist. Beef and chicken shawerma were somewhat tempting, but not compared to the Kufta Plate ($10.99), ground beef tenderloin mixed with Mediterranean herbs, parsley and onion that were char-grilled on skewers and served with a mountain of rice. The added skewer of grilled vegetables was a nice touch, especially the tiny onions with scorched skins from the grill. So was the tangy yogurt dipping sauce that tempered the impact of the lean but still substantial beef.
We made sure to order one of the weekend specials: Kabseh. Lamb shank and tiny ribs were treated with 10 different spices and slow cooked for eight hours until fork-tender. The mildly gamy sheep meat appeared on a heaping pile of well-seasoned, expertly cooked basmati rice that was studded with raisins, cardamom pods and shaved toasted almonds that provided textural contrast.
We made several large dents in our plates, but with only two people, several containers of leftovers were inevitable. However, we still mustered enough room to order a steaming mini-pot of murky Middle Eastern coffee that was most certainly not good to the last drop due to the gritty grounds.
To explore the full depths of Olive Tree’s imposing menu would require a couple dozen visits. The best way to sample the bulk of the menu in one sitting is during Olive Tree’s locally famous Ramadan buffet, where almost every special is available and lines snake out the front door. Ahmad promises, “You come in here every day, I guarantee you gain 20 pounds.” With two days notice, it’s also possible to order a whole 30-pound lamb stuffed with rice, beef and nuts for $300. There are clearly plenty of reasons to return to Olive Tree, and based on our initial visit, motivation is not lacking in the least.