For years, chef Dima Habibeh has dreamed of expansion. The owner of downtown Long Beach’s Ammatolí considers that word in many permutations: expanding herself, physically expanding her restaurant space, and expanding the cultural influences currently found on her broad menu. Now, after growing her restaurant’s footprint all the way out to the northwest corner of Long Beach Boulevard and Third Street, the dream is feeling more like manifest destiny.
Ammatolí opened quietly in 2018, nestled between an architectural firm and a fast-casual burger chain. The restaurant had a guiding principle from the start: to serve Levantine food that refused to be limited to one particular country. Rather, Ammatolí speaks to its owner’s diasporic background and to the richness of the Levant and the wider region, with menu nods to Jordan, Palestine, Cyprus, Turkey, and also Egypt.
Since those opening days, Ammatolí has caught on with a generation of Los Angeles and Orange County diners, including many from local Levantine and Arab diaspora communities. The support has allowed chef Dima (who wishes to be referenced by her first name, not her family name) to begin to take over her Long Beach block, beginning with that former next-door burger spot. Because she has spent so much time tinkering, thinking, and making the moves to bring Ammatolí’s expansion to life, chef Dima did not stop to consider how the rest of the world might see this change and growth. She’s been surprised at just how many people now venture in, convinced that Ammatolí is an entirely new restaurant. She has built something, slowly and right before them, that they are now seeing for the very first time.
“It really is the full realization of my dreams of what Ammatolí could be,” she says.
In practical terms, all of those wide-eyed visitors aren’t wrong. Ammatolí has an entirely new wing, marked by a massive archway entry from the original space. The growth has doubled the seating of the original location. The new frontage welcomes patrons to a fresh bar area and a wood-fired oven, where Dima finally has the space and equipment to turn out made-to-order pitas and man’oushe. There’s a marble, glass-wrapped area that offers Ammatolí’s daily baked goods, from various forms of baklava and borek to spinach fatayer and “cheese boats” that can be finished off with a runny egg. The added space has allowed for similar growth in Ammatolí’s menu.
“I always tell my kitchen: Cook with love,” says Dima. “People can sense it in food. You should feel like you’re coming into my home when you visit.”
Ammatolí is also a look at Dima’s many identities. Her Palestinian father hails from Jerusalem; her mother is from Damascus, Syria; and Dima herself grew up in Amman, Jordan (hence the restaurant’s name). She is proud to note that her food isn’t singularly Jordanian, Syrian, or Palestinian. She believes the restaurant’s menu embodies the richness of her family history in the Levant region in addition to the second half of her life here in California.
Her spices come from Jordan, a collection that is refined and ever-altering thanks to her annual trip to Amman. Her pistachios are from Antep, Turkey, where the climate is ideal, and her olive oil comes from Palestine and Jordan, where centuries-old groves produce a grassy, ghee-like oil. But her fresh herbs, her produce, and her proteins all come from local sources, and her kitchen staff, tasked with executing her extensive menu, leans heavily Mexican and Central American. They’ve introduced her to a variety of flavors and sauces during numerous staff meals, and slowly those moments have helped to reform the definition of the restaurant. Take the Hola Shawarma, a pita-wrapped beef shawarma burrito topped with serrano-laden salsa verde and sour cream, or the Levantine chilaquiles that rely on pita chips instead of tortillas. Want some simple hot sauce for the table? There’s a bright orange habanero sauce for that.
Neighborhood locals grew to trust Dima while members of the Arab community began to venture through the doors to enjoy special-order plates of mansaf, yogurt-marinated shanks of lamb tucked between folded flats of pita, and muhammara, a bright, rust orange red pepper dip where walnuts and pomegranate molasses meld together. Ammatolí’s musakhan chicken was a regular hit, served as sumac-slathered quarters of chicken blanketed in hefty heaps of caramelized onion and slivered almonds and set atop housemade pita on bright, golden plates.
“Of course flavor is important,” says Dima when discussing those golden plates and other colorful touches around the restaurant, “but food should also be beautiful. Flavor and presentation and ingredients all complement one another.” The results — culled from a childhood in the Levant, a multicultural restaurant kitchen, and an eye for design and growth — are uniquely Dima, and they’ve begun to attract a larger audience.
“Whenever we are in Los Angeles, we visit,” says a man from a table of four on a recent evening inside Ammatolí. He hails from Qatar. “Her food reminds us of our families across the whole region of home.” Over the course of a week, diners from Turkey, Palestine, Portugal, Iran, Egypt, and Washington D.C. will pull Dima aside, telling her that her food is not only special, but that it’s helped to create a community hub that extends well beyond Long Beach.
“There was this customer, Yousef, who lost his father 12 years ago,” says Dima, “and the plate of musakhan chicken brought him to tears. It reminded him so much of his father and his parents’ home.” She pauses, then smiles. “And this was just through a Yelp review that I learned this!”
The multicultural layers of her patrons reflect the beauty of Southern California, shown small in Ammatolí’s big new space. Along one wall is a line of personal photos that Dima herself has taken from across the region of her homeland; mother-of-pearl mosaics glint from the furniture, a design detail that Dima brought back from a previous trip to Amman. Then there is the baked goods display, its rich tapestry of flavor marking not just the success of the restaurant’s growth, but spiritual fulfillment for Dima herself.
“Sometimes,” Dima says, “when I’m looking at this space — this is entirely my style, my design, my colors — I think, What if I had done this huge space from the beginning? What if I didn’t have the tiny space I started with, the menu I started with? And I realize [Ammatolí] probably wouldn’t be what it is.”
As for why she chose Long Beach in the first place, Dima says that she wanted to be a bridge between disparate Los Angeles and Orange County. “I wanted a place where all communities and families are able to meet in the middle,” she says, “be it for Ramadan or Eid al-Adha or birthdays or graduation. It’s also become a place for others to learn about my culture and home, my food and my people.”
Dima treasures those customers who come through for the first time or the fiftieth because it’s all about growing her own sense of connection and what’s possible for diners in Long Beach. “Whether they are from Damascus or Irvine, I feel honored they consider my restaurant as more than just a restaurant. Food heals and uplifts,” she says.