It's an elaborate rendition of the Middle Eastern meze, but not an untraditional one. At Olive Tree, the fatit hummus is both staple and symbol, representative of a certain kind of detailed and familial Levantine cooking lost among the monotony of low-cost shwarma shacks.
Olive Tree isn't a complicated place. Nor is it a secret to those who regularly bowl down Brookhurst Street, the arterial passage through Anaheim's Little Arabia. All the dishes you've come to love are here — classics soon to be fully absorbed into the American appetite — but owner Abu Ahmad's 5-year-old restaurant is not one you go to for the familiar.
Olive Tree also explores the underserved and overlooked regional recipes of Palestine, Jordan, Syria and elsewhere. They're the dishes of weddings and homecomings, celebratory meals delivered here via a set schedule of daily specials.
Maklouba welcomes you to the working week, a heap of rice studded with either chicken or lamb and slivers of eggplant so soft they border on baba ganoush. By Wednesday there's stuffed chicken. The petite bird is packed with cinnamon- and cardamom-spiced basmati rice, the remaining grains used for a bed on which the chicken rests. The stuffed chicken isn't of a particular provenance, however — its spice trail passes through the entire Middle East.
Jordanian mansaf is more distinct. Lamb shanks and ribs are slow-cooked in jameed — a brick of sun-dried sheep's milk yogurt rehydrated with a few splashes of water — and served over rice. The broth is amplified to the outer limits of tanginess by the jameed's acidic, buttermilk-like bite.
There's no rest for the weekend — Sunday, for example, sees Palestinian musakhan, chicken baked with onions and sumac — but Olive Tree's everyday menu isn't without its own surprises. Alongside the cast of kebabs is tahalat, roasted lamb spleen shocked with garlic, cilantro and a flash of chiles. It's part pâté, part blood sausage, an unctuous and creamy meat black as a desert night.
Like so much offal, a whole plate of tahalat can be enervating. But piled into a pita sandwich it's thoughtfully subsumed, an earthy, meaty spread, texturally complex and rich.
And the kebabs are worthwhile too. Try them all with the combination plate: charred cylinders of ground beef, blackened blocks of lamb, tangerine-tinted chicken and blistered vegetables. Then turn it into a feast with medammas, a garlic-spiked fava bean dip that's the Levantine response to refried beans.
Around the restaurant's few tables are cab drivers, couples and neighborhood kids all organizing their days according to the itinerary of the kitchen. And it's no wonder why: Portions are sized to feed a family, a menu that encourages return visits.
Olive Tree might become a habit, but nothing here is routine.
512 S. Brookhurst St., Suite 3, Anaheim, (714) 535-2878.
Meze, $3.50 to $9.99; sandwiches, $4.99 to $5.50; entrees, $6.99 to $14.99; daily specials, $10.99 to $13.99.
Open daily 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Lot parking. Credit cards accepted.