The western half of the San Fernando Valley is a hotbed for flatbreads. Saj Bakery is certainly a key stop in the Middle Eastern bakery diaspora, but the Lebanese café from chef Charlie Succar and brother Mel offers much more, including what might be some of the best shawarma in Los Angeles.
The Succars hail from the northern Lebanon village of Bsharri, the same town as famed writer Gibran Khalil Gibran (who wrote The Prophet). Charlie attended Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts-Scottsdale and worked his way up to sous chef at Radisson Hotel Chatsworth before developing products for Sara Lee. After Bimbo Bakeries USA purchased the national baking brand in 2011, he briefly worked with Nature's Harvest before leaving to open a bakery in his neighborhood, with brother Mel handling the business side.
Charlie often shopped for produce at a market in a Granada Hills plaza, and he was eventually able to secure the space for Saj Bakery, which debuted in 2013. The interior features seven wood tables, a mural of people baking saj bread on a griddle, framed photos of Beyrouth (aka Beirut), and an open kitchen. Two shawarma spits rotate slowly, and flames lick the sides of a stainless steel oven, with a mouth that constantly requires feeding.
The name Saj refers to the famed razor-thin Middle Eastern flatbread, which is traditionally cooked on a convex grill. At Saj Bakery, Charlie Succar griddles slightly thicker saj on a flat-top to support sandwiches that boast fillings like shawarma and falafel.
[Falafel at Saj Bakery]
Their saj is blistered and pliable, a beautiful match for either chicken or beef shawarma ($7.99), both of which make strong cases for the city's best. Charlie Succar wouldn't give away many secrets to how he marinates each cone of shawarma, but he did say the chicken thigh is never frozen so it doesn't get watery from thawing. The beef shawarma layers beef fat into choice-grade chuck to keep the meat juicy.
It costs an extra buck to get your sandwich on saj, and the surcharge is well worth it, with flame-singed meat, pickled cucumbers, tomatoes, and garlic sauce joining the sandwich fray. With each order, you'll get a plate of pickled cucumbers, purple pickled turnip spears, and punchy pepperoncini.
Downtown or in Silver Lake, falafel like this would draw lines.
Falafel patties are masterfully crafted with garbanzo beans, cilantro, onions, salt, pepper, dried parsley and more spices before frying in a shallow pool of canola oil. Nutty tahini and pickled turnips provide welcome foils to the soft falafel with thin, crispy sheathes. Downtown or in Silver Lake, falafel like this would draw lines.
No visit to Saj Bakery would be complete without a swing by the baked good display case. Yes, you'll find fairly common flatbread configurations like zaatar crusted mana'ish, spinach and cheese pies, plus some more unique items.
For instance, cheese saroukh ($4.99) blends white and Ackawi cheeses, onion, spices and parsley. The filled bread is studded with sesame seeds and sliced.
[Katfa hummus pie]
Kafta hummus pie ($7.99) is baked to order and stars kafta, ground beef blended with onion and parsley that resembles green chorizo. Minced pickled cucumber, tomato, and of course hummus also come into play. The bread's folded around these elements like a calzone — crimped, sesame-lined, and baked.
For dessert, containers of rice pudding and custard appear in a cold display case alongside bottles of mango nectar and juice. Your best bet might just be to order tahini bread, a disc that's rich with sesame paste and sugar, featuring a shatteringly thin crust and a rich core. Or you could just trade off with each visit, since stopping at Saj Bakery probably won't be a one-time thing.
The Saj Bakery
11146 Balboa Blvd.
Granada Hills, CA