Middle Eastern cuisine has recently expanded from "mom and pops" and into James Beard Award-winning mainstream restaurants. Hummus and pita were the first crossovers to appear on menus at large chains; kabobs and falafels are becoming as familiar as spaghetti and meatballs; and a popular Middle Eastern breakfast dish, shakshuka - eggs baked in a spicy tomato/pepper sauce - now appears on menus alongside pancakes and French toast.
Spices such as sumac, za’atar, dukkah and harissa are now listed in menus. Other notable ingredients include freekah, an ancient whole-wheat grain poised to be the new quinoa; labneh (yogurt cheese) is featured as a topping, creamy mix-in, or dessert base; and pomegranates are used for its seeds and molasses.
Middle Eastern restaurants have been part of the Los Angeles dining scene for decades. Some of the best eateries in L.A. are located in mini malls and owned by families from Israel, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Armenia, Morocco, Greece, Iran and other countries in the eastern Mediterranean. Meet the chefs and learn about the restaurants at the forefront of the new wave of modern Middle Eastern cuisine in Los Angeles.
The Exchange - Freehand L.A.
Retro meets the Middle East at this modern Israeli-style restaurant located off the lobby at the Freehand Los Angeles, which is housed in the renovated 1924 Commercial Exchange Building that's best known as the first Owl Drugstore and the first publishing quarters of Edgar Rice Burroughs (“Tarzan”). Los Angeles chef Alex Chang has created a modern med restaurant that also pairs Mexican and Chinese influences characteristic of Los Angeles and his background. The Exchange is a collaboration with Gabe Orta and Elad Zvi, the duo behind the hotel’s award-winning rooftop bar, Broken Shaker, as well as its other locations in Miami, Chicago and New York. The buzzy eatery is wood-centric with a mustard, eggplant, and teal color scheme. Whimsical touches include handcrafted knit coasters, flowered napkins, kitschy '70s style art, and mismatched dishes.
Must Eat: Jerusalem bagel, “salatim,” Pargiyot (grilled chicken) with shawarma spice, carrot mole and yogurt.
In January 2017, the two Sara(h)s from Madcapra opened Kismet in partnership with restaurateurs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo (Jon & Vinny’s, Animal, Son of a Gun, Trois Familia, etc.). Located near where Hollywood Boulevard intersects Sunset, the theme of this casual all-day restaurant is Middle Eastern meets modern California. The narrow, minimalist space is bright and inviting, with two rows of blonde wood banquettes, low bar stools, and a semi-open kitchen. The daytime menu includes baked goods (by Chef Meadow Ramsey from nearby Sqrl), salads, toasts, granola, shakshuka, savory pies and tarts. Snacktime from 3 to 5 p.m. is a pseudo-happy hour with beer, wine and lighter fare. Dinner brings it all together, adding heartier dishes. The “go big” here is a feast: rabbit for two with flaky bread, greens, pickles, tahini and yogurt. All the elements indeed add up to destiny.
Must Eat: jeweled crispy rice with egg yolk; the daytime-only Turkish-ish breakfast (a little of everything).
Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymanson relocated to L.A. from New York - they worked together at Glasserie, an acclaimed contemporary Middle Eastern eatery in Brooklyn. In a few short years they’ve established themselves as part of L.A.’s young chef avant-garde. Their first venture, Madcapra is located at Grand Central Market in Downtown L.A. Madcapra is a modern, organic, vegetable driven falafel stand with white subway tile, marble counters and a green neon sign. Instead of the usual round shape, the falafels are ground up chickpeas formed into squares, with four varieties offered as a sandwich rolled in za'atar dusted flatbread or as a salad. The ingredients are atypical as well—cauliflower, pickled fennel, walnut-yogurt and dill, and cilantro are just some of the ingredients not usually found in falafel sandwich. The drink list includes iced cardamom coffee, orange blossom yogurt drink and sumac-beet soda. Beer and wine are offered as well as “shandria,” the Madcapra version of sangria with ginger lemonade, beer and fruit.
Must Eat: “go big”— priced at $33, the menu sampler for two offers a taste of everything.
Spread Mediterranean Kitchen
This casual and stylish one-year-old central Downtown L.A. eatery, complete with a significant craft cocktail menu and international wine/beer list, is the brainchild of first-time restaurant owners Dan Coury and Brandon Parker, who teamed with Brandon Weaver (former chef de cuisine at The Roof at the Peninsula Beverly Hills). The straight-forward menu has two parts: Individual Style (build-your-own)— choose a base (rice, flatbread, salad, hummus; main (proteins or veggie); and a “style” with various mid-east centric ingredients that is reasonable ($9-11) and perfect for a quick lunch; or Family Style (a.k.a. "feast")—three sizes of “spreads” for a minimum of two people. Pair it all with a Fig Fashioned (fig-infused Rye) or a Harissa Margarita. Leave room for Greek soft-serve yogurt with halvah crumble.
Must Eat: To get the entire experience, especially for first-timers, splurge with the “big spread” ($27 per person) and get a taste of everything—falafel, Israeli salad, hummus, basmati rice, lamb meatballs, za’atar fried chicken, harissa braised beef, and roasted mushrooms.
Israeli-born Ran Zimon initially opened Bread Lounge in the Downtown L.A. Arts District as a wholesale bakery venture, creating a mix of baked goods combining European technique with Middle Eastern spices and ingredients, such as house made za’atar, harissa, olives, feta cheese, pistachios, and sesame seeds. Opened in 2010, the bakery occupies a nondescript building at Santa Fe and Seventh (look for a small sign) in a minimalist space that now also includes café fare (sandwiches, salads, soups, baked specialties) with indoor/outdoor seating. Bakers can be viewed through a large window, while enticing bread loaves are gathered amidst displays of tantalizing pastries. There are also house-made jams, cookies, and granola packaged for sale. By the look and smell of the bread and baked goods, if you didn’t know you were in Los Angeles, you might think you walked into a bakery/café in Israel.
Must Eat: Jerusalem bagel with sesame seeds; The Dip-it-In: plate of labneh (yogurt cheese) topped with olive oil, za'atar spice, tomatoes and olives with slices of baguette.
A vegan/raw food musician-turned-chef, Scott Zwiezen was among the first to feature modern Middle Eastern cuisine when he opened Elf Cafe a decade ago with some of his bandmates. This wood-filled, candle-lit Echo Park restaurant with an herb garden stands apart from other Middle Eastern centric restaurants for its completely meatless menu. Moreover, Elf is a leader in plant-based restaurants that eschew faux versions of meat—none can be found here. The clean, fresh cuisine is inspired by Middle Eastern flavors with an innovative blend of grains, pasta, and vegetables. Manning the kitchen over the past few years is Chef Dave Martinez, who was previously at Soho House. He creates ambitious, innovative dishes for a menu that is constantly evolving. There is also an impressive list of natural, sustainable wines.
Must Eat: house pasta bolognese (lentil oyster mushroom ragout, allspice tomato sauce, San Joaquin gold cheese); fried hen of the woods (mushrooms, mashed potato, creamed kale, za’atar scone).
Dune - Atwater Village
In January 2015, Scott Zweizen opened his second venture, Dune, in Atwater Village. Lines quickly formed at the small walk-up eatery as word got out about his falafel, which many have called “the best ever.” Zweizen has been perfecting his recipe for over a decade: raw, organic chickpeas are soaked until they almost sprout and are ground with a variety of greens, mixed with shallots, and a bit of chile. Unlike other falafels, these are not made with flour, resulting in a crispy exterior and soft interior, without tasting oily. Order it on a plate or as a sandwich wrapped in freshly made flatbread smeared with hummus and topped with house-made pickles, marinated cabbage, onions, shoestring potatoes and tahini. Other options include lamb shaped in balls; fried chicken shawarma; and a variety of toasts and sides, such as shakshuka (garbanzo beans are added to the egg and spicy tomato sauce). The tiny interior includes a couple of tables and a small wraparound counter with bar stools. Peruse the menu that's written on a large wall mirror and then watch the cooks busily work behind the marble counter. In February 2017, Dune continued its magic falafel power with a second location at Olympic and Broadway, across from the Ace Hotel Downtown Los Angeles.
Must Eat: Organic green herb falafel any which way; Sabich (fried eggplant with an 8-minute egg, hummus, cucumber/tomato salad, radish and tahini wrapped in flatbread).
Mh Zh (pronounced "mah zay") is a Hebrew expression that translates to "what’s this." That's exactly what you'll think when you discover this tiny brick corner restaurant, which quietly opened in March 2017 on the block anchored by Millie’s. Featuring an open kitchen and counter stool seating, Mh Zh is accented with colorful jarred pickled vegetables, spices, and edible flowers. The eatery is almost like a very large stand with table service spilling over to the sidewalk. As the newest entry in L.A.'s Middle Eastern culinary scene, Mh Zh is definitely an exciting one to watch. The 26 year-old son of an Israeli father and an American mother, chef/owner Conor Shemtov grew up in L.A. and traveled back and forth to Israel. Completely self-taught, Shemtov describes Mh Zh as "Tel Aviv meets Los Angeles" with an eclectic menu that reflects influences from North Africa, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and even Spain, Italy, and the South of France. The slim, shareable menu is handwritten on thick brown paper bags and divided into hot (mostly cooked over charcoal) and cold sections, offering unique and beautifully plated vegetable-driven choices with a couple meat options as well. Food is mostly served on recyclable butcher-block paper and cardboard cake rounds. Dishes are found on a shelf underneath each table.
Must Eat: grilled beets with hazelnut, pomegranate molasses and labneh; lamb ‘ragoooo.’
Last summer, Danny Elmaleh and his wife Justine took over the Sherman Oaks space that was previously Simon’s, his father’s beloved namesake Moroccan restaurant. Renamed Mizlala (roughly meaning “eatery” in Hebrew), the décor has a more modern, colorful look but still retains a casual, homespun, authentic feel—especially with a wall that pays tribute to Simon. A dozen tables fill the room, plus the addition of a counter and bright red chairs below the kitchen window. The new menu mostly consists of elevated Israeli dishes with a nod to Turkey, Greece, and Morocco. Shared starters are listed under salatim ("salads" in Hebrew), followed by vegetables, meats, kebabs, and sides. There’s a fine selection of wine, as well as Sapporo—a toast to Danny's Japanese mother. Currently open for dinner only.
Must Eat: Moroccan carrots with harissa, yogurt and crispy quinoa; Moroccan fried chicken with harissa and apricot mustard.
George Abou-Daoud is the prolific restaurateur behind numerous eclectic eateries in Hollywood, including Bowery, Delancey, and Mission Cantina. Bowery Bungalow in Silver Lake is the first restaurant to reflect his Lebanese and Egyptian heritage, with farm-to-table versions of traditional Middle Eastern dishes that are best shared. He works alongside chef Dario Martinez to fully execute modernized Old World dishes. Opened in 2015 on a quiet stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard just down the street from Sunset Junction, Bowery Bungalow inhabits a charming yellow cottage with a white picket fence. The cozy space has a small bar, hanging enamel lights, reclaimed wood, tufted banquettes, brick walls lined with vintage cooking tools, and a tranquil private garden patio. There's also wines by the glass, craft beer, and a soundtrack that will make you feel like singing along.
Must Eat: Moroccan couscous with saffron, chickpeas, fruit and vegetables; hummus bi tahini topped with crisped chickpeas, beef cheek and pine nuts.