When Nesrine Omari and her husband Mike Hawari opened Kareem’s Falafel in 1996, their Anaheim neighborhood looked more than a little different. Today, the 26-year-restaurant is surrounded by pan-Middle-Eastern restaurants, bakers, and retail stores along Brookhurst, part of what is affectionately and unofficially known as Orange County’s Little Arabia. It is possible to find food and goods from Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt, Seria, and beyond here, but that was not the case 26 years ago.
The newlyweds Omari and Hawari immigrated from the largely Arab city of Nazareth, Israel to California in the early ’90s, settling eventually in Orange County in search of a simpler life. Mike Hawari worked a variety of mostly fast food jobs to make ends meet; he hadn’t been a cook back in Nazareth, but he needed to feed the family. Eventually, says their son, Kareem Hawari, “My dad realized that he could do something with the recipes that he already had in his head. So he decided, ‘Let’s open a restaurant on Brookhurst!’”
Kareem’s Falafel, which is named after him, arrived as a small-ish strip mall cafe serving inexpensive falafel plates and fattoush salads, and by the early 2000s the restaurant had become a staple of the booming Little Arabia food scene. Then, in 2012, Mike Hawari died following a protracted battle with lung cancer, leaving the family and the restaurant in limbo. Kareem was still in high school, and had shown little interest in helping out around the shop; he preferred to hide in a storage closet playing GameCube after school with his sisters. The restaurant closed for nearly half a year as the family rebuilt itself through their grief, and it was Omari who decided to reopen Kareem’s as a legacy for her late husband and the community they had helped to build.
“I was always in awe at how fast my dad could cut a cucumber or a tomato,” says the younger Hawari when remembering his father at work, “but I never thought I’d be that person. That’s what my parents did. I would go to college and do something different.”
Kareem did spend a semester at Cal State Fullerton, but he quickly found more calling in the family business. After all, why learn about business theory when he could practice it every day at the restaurant? “After my father passed, people were thinking we would close, knowing how much competition there was,” he says. “It ignited this flame inside of me. I realized that this is my moment.”
The competition in Little Arabia can be fierce, but it can also be collaborative. “We all do something specific to our niche,” says Hawari. “We’ll have customers ask for certain foods and we recommend the next restaurant over, and they’ll do the same. It’s very welcoming, and I think a lot of people are starting to understand that. We want people to come in and try different foods.”
Connecting the community’s past and its future is something that Hawari thinks about often as he tries to marry his late father’s notoriously high standards to his own sense of growth and, increasingly, his creativity. That ingenuity became key during the 2020 COVID-19 shutdowns, when Kareem worked to keep the restaurant afloat alongside his older sisters Nora and Marwa. He further reshaped the menu to draw in new customers, especially with so much business coming through younger diners via delivery apps.
“We always had one type of hummus,” says Kareem of the earlier menu. While tinkering in the kitchen one day, he managed to turn out a bright green cilantro-lime hummus that kept the inspiration of the original but with more zip and a lot more color. “My inspiration came from growing up watching Spongebob Squarepants,” he says. “When he made the pretty patties. I was like, ‘Colors are fun!’ As long as it tastes good, people will be excited to try it.” A smoky chipotle tahini followed, and today the menu is a mix of favorites — fattoush salads, basmati rice, falafel — and newer options, like bowls and feta-laced french fries. Thankfully, he says, the regulars have kept coming, too.
The pandemic also pushed Kareem’s Falafel into the home cooking game, selling bottled sauces and frozen gluten-free falafel mix by the bag, after only wholesaling their falafel to other restaurants for years. “If my dad were around, I don’t think he would accept half the things I did,” says Hawari. “But then at the same time, none of this would be possible had I not been here at the restaurant. It’s a mind-boggling thing.”
The only sacred menu item, Hawari insists, is the falafel itself. “Dad’s last words were ‘Don’t change my recipe.’” To him, the dish is both an homage to his ancestral homeland and a connection to his father’s memory. The fried chickpea blend features a variety of herbs and ingredients, including cilantro and onions, plus just enough garlic and ‘secret spices’ to stand out, even in Little Arabia. Now, the younger Hawari uses those falafel balls as an anchor for the menu, across wraps, salads, bowls, and even a saucy, Instagrammable falafel burger.
When Hawari was 10 years old, he visited Nazareth. “We saw the whole town,” he recalls. “The pace of life was so different, but people were really passionate about food.” Mike wasn’t on that trip with the rest of the family, and the pair never got to see the city together. “He was working here at Kareem’s,” the younger Hawari says with a pause. “I can’t even imagine how he did that. Everything he did was a sacrifice for our family. We owe it all to him.”
Kareem’s Falafel is open Tuesday through Sunday at 1208 Brookhurst Street in Anaheim.