During the interview, George Chammaa’s mother, Fayeza Chammaa, sits in the back of the family restaurant, Sunnin Lebanese Cafe, having her mid-day meal next to her red tablet. George sits in front of me, one of Fayeza’s five children, as we sit in the airy, homey restaurant. In between our interview, he speaks Spanish to bid an employee goodbye and a customer taps on his shoulder as she leaves.
A neighborhood restaurant, Sunnin Lebanese Restaurant began in 1995 at the current location of its bakery on Westwood Street. (Side note: Sunnin is the name of a mountain in Lebanon). It has since expanded to a catering business and two branches‒one in Santa Monica and the other in Westwood‒with the hope to continue expansion. Jewish and Asian customers from UCLA frequent the place, dining among maroon walls and beaded lamps overhead. Service is quick and attentive, and free and plentiful parking exists!
Fayeza Chammaa grew up in a small village in Akkar district, located in the North of Lebanon. In 1987, Fayeza and her husband fled the Lebanon Civil War for the United States. Even today, “things are not good,” George says. Civil unrest continues due to its proximity to war-ridden Syria and Israel and their admittance of Syrian immigrants.
Fayeza did not have any conception of the American Dream but needed to survive. Building on her cooking experience since she had always cooked for family and friends, she decided to take the risk and open a restaurant business.
Today, her children manages the restaurants, but Fayeza still comes in the morning to cook, creating dishes as authentic as the traditional fare of kibbeh laban, or “shape-of-a-ball yogurt.” Kibbeh laban are minced lamb and bulgur croquettes in a yogurt sauce lightened by mint, parsley, and olive oil.
My partner-in-crime, Gaby and I tried two dishes during the second visit: kibbeh laban and a pastry platter containing fatayeh, sanbousek, sfiha, and rekakat.
Hot Pockets Gone Wild
[From most left to right, clockwise: sfina, fatayeh, rekakat, and sanbousek.]
Upon first bite of kibbeh laban, we discovered soft meat, whole pine nuts, and subtle spice. The croquettes were covered in a tangy, minty, creamy sauce, as if dreaming on cloud nine, accompanied by a bed of buttery rice (riiz bi sh’arieh). The rice huffed and puffed for some exposure, cheered on by vermicelli shreds for savory flavor and soft texture.
The pastry platter was a pleasant surprise with a reappearance of the pine nut. The sfina appeared as a square pastry pinched on all four corners, containing baked, spicy ground beef, onion, spice, and pine nuts−reminiscent of a Spice Girl. Tart in flavor, the triangular fatayer enveloped spinach, onion, pine nuts, and sumak−a Mediterranean and Middle Eastern plant whose fruits are red berries with a tangy, lemony flavor. As feta cheese, onion, and parsley rolled in fried, chewy filo dough, rekakat felt like a hug received upon returning home. Sanbousek, a mini Calzone lookalike, contained fried ground beef, onion, and pine nuts−easily your trustworthy meat pie.
The Sumak Bush and their Berries
The menu is more traditional and health-conscious, as Fayeza uses cancer-fighting spices such as turmeric and cumin. On certain days, Madame Chammaa continues to save the day by serving “Em Tony’s Specials”−”Em” for mother and “Tony” for her eldest son. Offerings include a Lebanese style Shepherd’s Pie and Stuffed Squash and Eggplant.
According to George, Lebanon cuisine is known for their mezza−similar to Spanish tapas but often taken for a whole meal. Sunnin Lebanese Cafe’s mezza includes hummus (mashed chickpeas with tahini), baba ganouj (pureed grilled eggplant with tahini), tabouleh (finely-chopped salad with parsley, tomatoes, mint, onion, and cracked wheat), warak enab (spiced rice wrapped in grape leaves), fatayer (baked spinach pie), falafel (deep-fried chickpea patties), fried kibbeh (meatballs containing bulgur and onions), and sanbousek (fried pies stuffed with meat and pine nuts). Are you hungry yet?
Before leaving, we visited the bakery and picked up two goodies‒a walnut anise cookie and a date cookie. Crumbly and fragrant, Gaby’s eyes widened and we jumped for joy inside.
The Bakery’s Kitchen and Two Dainty Cookies
Santa Monica Branch
Mon, Tues, Wed, Thurs, Sun - 11 AM-9 PM
Fri, Sat - 11:00-9:30
Address: 525 Santa Monica Blvd #120, Santa Monica, CA 90401
Phone: (310) 475 3358
Mon - 6 PM-12 AM
Tues, Wed, Thurs - 8 AM-12 AM
Fri, Sat - 8 AM-3 AM
Sun - 9 AM-3 PM
Address: 1779 Westwood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90024
Phone: (310) 231 4444