(Photo: Aleppo's Kitchen/Facebook)

A Taste of Syria in Southern California

Far from their war-torn home, this small community turns to the dinner table to keep a connection.
Sep 4, 2014· 5 MIN READ
Erica Zora Wrightson is a Pasadena native who writes about proximities, distances, and the ingredients of place. She is currently pursuing a master's degree in oral history at Columbia University in New York.

The restaurant comes alive in the evenings, when the heat subsides and people can enjoy hookah and Turkish coffee on the back patio or settle into a table in the dining room backlit by a mural of the Citadel of Aleppo. “Arabs love to talk about politics, whether they are from Egypt, Jordan, or elsewhere in the Middle East,” says Sammy Hayomar, the general manager. “You have a lot of people who don’t agree with each other eating together here.” During Muslim holidays, the restaurant hosts special meals and adjusts its hours and menu to its religious customers. During the month of Ramadan, a line of Muslims preparing to break fast stretched all the way around the parking lot for the restaurant’s massive, nightly all-you-can-eat buffet of Syrian and other Middle Eastern dishes.

The scene might not have been out of place during more peaceful times in Damascus or Aleppo—but Hayomar lives in Orange County, Calif. Restaurants like Aleppo’s Kitchen, located in Anaheim’s Little Arabia, and Kebab Halebi in Van Nuys are at the center of a Syrian diaspora trying to keep some connection with home.

Food cooked by someone you know and love, in a kitchen in a city dear to you—or at least in the tradition of a culture you can relate to—can evoke the essences of people and places, however far from them you may be. Familiar food is comfort food, and it is in times of discomfort that we crave it most.

For many refugees, the homeland is too dangerous or impossible to return to, and native friends and food are often the only immediate cures for homesickness. While Mexican, Salvadoran, Ethiopian, Indian, and Chinese restaurants are abundant in Los Angeles, with fewer than 20,000 people of Syrian descent living in the state, this brand of home-style cooking is harder to come by.

Aleppo’s Kitchen and Kebab Halebi, both run by Syrian refugees, keep tradition alive for an appreciative customer base that extends beyond the Syrian community: On any given night, you’ll find Israelis, Arabs, Muslims, Christians, Pakistanis, Indians, and Americans breaking pita bread next to each other and passing plates stacked with one of Syria’s many iterations of the fried meat dumplings called kibbe.

Owned by Krikor Ghadanian, an Armenian from Syria, Kebab Halebi is squeezed between a dry cleaner and a divorce-law office on Sherman Way. The sole chef at Kebab Halebi, Ghadanian began working in restaurants back home at age eight. He never learned to read or write and relies on his sons to manage the restaurant and his wife to oversee the books and baking. Ghadanian’s father was a chef in Syria and ran a restaurant in Aleppo before fleeing to the States in the 1980s, when violence flared under the rule of President Hafez Assad. He moved around and opened restaurants in Chicago, Hollywood, and the San Fernando Valley. After working with various family members, Ghadanian set off in search of independence and settled on this strip mall in Van Nuys to avoid competing with restaurants owned by relatives in Encino and Sherman Oaks. His son George, now the restaurant’s general manager, started working at age 10, became a waiter at 16, then left to serve in the Navy for a few years before returning to the Valley.

“This isn’t the best place to bring your date, but it is honest, quality food,” he says. Each week, he sees familiar faces from Encino, Thousand Oaks, Silver Lake, Palisades, Santa Monica, and Long Beach. “Food transcends incomes here,” George says. “I see plenty of American Express black cards and Rolexes, Jaguars, Teslas, and Porsches in this crappy little strip mall. It makes me laugh. But it’s because the food tastes like home. There are a lot of Syrian refugees. When they’re young, they might hate Syrian and Lebanese food, but give them a few years and they will seek us out. People are always surprised by the food coming from a strip mall in Van Nuys that tastes homemade and like their mother’s and father’s cooking.”

During Ramadan, says George, fasting customers will arrive early to order dinner. “They pray, wait for the sun to go down, and then dig in.”

More so than Kebab Halebi in Van Nuys, Aleppo’s Kitchen seems somewhat at home on a strip of Brookhurst Street in Anaheim’s Little Arabia that's peppered with Middle Eastern markets and bakeries. California is home to the largest population of Arab Americans, and Orange County is home to the third-largest such community in the state. Aleppine chef Suher Masri, who has moved back and forth between Syria and U.S. over the years, learned all of her recipes from her mother, and she “treats the restaurant like she treats her home,” says her 19-year-old son, Sammy Hayomar, the restaurant’s general manager. Back in Syria, she cooked constantly, entertaining up to 30 family members at a time on the weekends, so although she had to adjust to cooking in larger quantities for the restaurant, it was a welcome transition.

The restaurant, which opened just over a year ago, has drawn customers from around Southern California for its proficiency in the Aleppine specialty kibbe, a hearty combination of cracked wheat, spiced ground meat, and nuts. According to Masri, there are 58 types of kibbe in Aleppo. In her kitchen, she fashions meat and bulgur into 10 baked and fried versions, including little cupcake-shaped domes dusted with pistachio nut pieces and crunchy cigar-shaped logs.

Although the restaurant prides itself on its Aleppine specialties, Masri has tailored her menu to please her customers and use the ingredients available to her in the States. When she received multiple requests for kabsa—a dish of lamb over spiced rice with nuts and dried fruit that's popular in Jordan and Saudi Arabia—she enlisted a Jordanian friend to teach her the recipe and added it to the menu. Like Kebab Halebi, the food here often satisfies the culinary nostalgia of immigrants from across the Middle East.

Still, lamb has been difficult for the restaurant to sell. In Syria, says Masri, it’s the most popular meat because the animals are grass-fed and the meat is fresh and abundant. Here though, people prefer beef because it’s cheaper. After failed attempts to sell lamb kabob and dishes made from other cuts, she's given in and now makes kibbe out of beef only so as not to waste.

The ingredients may break with tradition, but conserving resources is naturally on the minds of people with family back home in Syria. “Some families can’t buy meat because prices are so high,” says Masri. “Bread used to be 15 lire. Now it is 200 lire. Even rice is unaffordable now. Before, even the poor could afford to eat meat, but no one can anymore.” The war has limited resources far beyond food. Hayomar’s uncles are chemists and have produced soap and degreasers for years in Aleppo. They used to have a factory in the city center but can no longer access it, so now they have to make everything at home and buy all of their water too.

On a Saturday afternoon, Syrian Hani Rahmo, 20, smokes a hookah with his friends on the sun-washed patio of Aleppo's Kitchen. A resident of San Clemente, he heard about the restaurant from a relative and brought a few friends from Corona to check out the place. Across from him, a man from Lebanon finishes his lunch alone with a book. He heard about the restaurant from a friend and drove out from the Anaheim Hills on his day off. Inside, Leila Treki, a graceful middle-aged woman from Libya dressed in a hijab greets Masri with a big hug. She was Hayomar’s summer school teacher years ago in Los Angeles. “I lived here for 35 years, got crazy, and moved back” to Libya, she says with a smile as her family settles in at a large table in the center of the restaurant for a late lunch.

When asked if he’ll ever return to Syria, where he lived with his family from ages 10 to 17, Hayomar says he’ll work and study here but hopes to go back when he’s older. “People are more social there and carefree, even though the lifestyle is modest and people have lost so much,” he says. “There is a lot of support there. When you are forced out, you miss it more.”

Until then, at least there’s his mother’s perfect kibbe and the power of a community that has had to reconstruct a home away from Syria. “The goal of our restaurant is to bring people together to eat homemade food,” says Hayomar. “People who come to the restaurant say they are eating home cooking, that the food here tastes like home.”