In the German fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin, a miller’s daughter promises her first-born child to a monster so she can weave straw into gold for the King. At Knafeh Café in Anaheim’s Little Arabia, Asem Abusir didn’t make a deal with the dark side, but uses a giant wheel resembling an old film reel to spin lacy phyllo strands called kataifeh into a golden pastry using century-old family recipes.
The café’s namesake pastry comes in two forms at this artisanal bakery: soft and crispy. In both cases, Abusir fills sheet pans with knafeh that shines like orange gold, most likely from saffron, though he is secretive about his methods. Crispy slabs ($5 each) are layered with kataifeh pastry, plus some stretchy white cow’s milk cheese that he makes in-house, a healthy glug of house-made simple syrup for sweetness’s sake, and a finish of crushed pistachios. Sometimes back home in the West Bank city of Nablus, his family would use goat’s milk for cheese, but that’s a bit more divisive and much harder to come by in Anaheim, California.
Soft, buttery knafeh is made with different dough and geared toward customers who don’t crave crunch, but still tastes sweet and satisfying. For Lebanese customers who prefer knafeh like they can get back home, Abusir serves sesame-studded discs that have the airy texture of Jerusalem bagels, where people can tuck knafeh to eat like a sandwich.
Abusir’s family started making knafeh 100 years ago in the pastry’s Palestinian birthplace of Nablus. His relatives still run a shop in Jerusalem, as well as five shops in Jordan. “Whether you’re an engineer, doctor, or lawyer, you have to learn to make knafeh,” he says. Abusir worked as an IT engineer for 30 years before becoming a pastry pro in 2013.
Knafeh Café also serves many other baked goods that are popular throughout the Middle East, including baklava, but Palestinian pastries true to Abusir’s roots are the primary draws. Yes, they have textbook baklava, but the baker is almost dismissive of baklava’s popularity, saying, “At this point, baklava is almost more American than Middle Eastern, but knafeh is still a new taste.”
Hareeseh with nuts ($3.50) is a moist semolina cake drenched in honey and simple syrup, topped with crunchy pistachios. The version with nuts is typical of Syria. A version in the case without nuts is more common throughout the Middle East.
Helbeh ($2.50) is a darker semolina cake studded with fenugreek, a seed that’s supposedly good for blood circulation. Abusir cuts soft squares from a sheet tray. The cake is then brushed with butter and drizzled with simple syrup, two moves that never hurt matters. Balourieh ($4) is a drier, crispy slab of kataifeh sandwiching crushed pistachios sweetened with fragrant rosewater. He employs more butter brushing and simple syrup drizzling because...why not?
Knafeh Café is a tiny strip mall shop, with just two sidewalk tables and five small tables inside. Yellow walls host photos of Nablus, including Abusir’s old family home. The shop also contains a fridge for cold desserts, many with Lebanese origins, and most of them creamy. Options include a rice pudding named roz bhaleeb and sweet rolls called halawet jebn crafted with semolina and cheese that are filled with classic custard called ashta.
Before leaving, Abusir provides a caffeinated head’s up. “The coffee is coming out, so get ready, because I have a story,” he says. Abusir returns with a long-handled urn, begins pouring coffee into two small cups, and continues his story. When a man proposes, the woman brings out Turkish coffee. “If both cups have foam, she’ll be a good housewife. If not, then she won’t be a good housewife.” He serves Turkish coffee from the kettle, resulting in concentrated pours with sooty bottoms, but minimal foam. Abusir may not have the skills necessary to be a housewife or top barista, but certainly has baking know-how to spare.
Knafeh Cafe, 866 S. Brookhurst St., Anaheim, 714.442.0044