Amid the flock of franchises and grub hub repeats that sit within the City Place makeover known as The Streets in Downtown Long Beach—why have one when you can have two Poki Cat locations within a half mile—there sits a hidden gem. Nestled between slider chain Burgerim on its east and architectural firm Studio One Eleven on its west, Ammatoli, with its gorgeously minimal light gray, golds, and dark woods creating a peaceful ambiance, had an equally peaceful opening this past weekend with little fanfare—and perhaps that is best for now since it is offering some of the best Middle Eastern food in the city.
The Levant is a region rich in food culture, encompassing Israel, Cyprus, Jordan and, particularly important for this discussion, Lebanon and Palestine.
Ammatoli highlights Levantine cuisine in a way that is not only accessible—you’ll find a divinely spicy hummus along with other staples like baba ghannouj and tabbouleh—but entices patrons to dive deeper into the restaurant’s ambitious menu.
The Long Beach spin-off of owners and chefs Dima and Sam Habibeh’s Hermosa Beach-based Beirut Mix restaurant, Habibeh says that the menu is somewhat the same—but not entirely, exploring more with mezza, small plates for which Levantine food is popularly known and relished (given “relish” is the original meaning of the Persian word maza from which the term mezza derives).
And these go beyond the aforementioned staples like hummus or falafel. Take, for example, their zaatar manoush.
Zaatar—a generic term for an Arabic herbal mixture and, in the case of Ammatoli, a blend that includes basil, oregano, thyme, savory, and “other hints of love,” as Habibeh describes it—is mixed with olive oil and lathered with a heavy stroke onto their house flatbread. When folded and lifted, the aromatic liquid drips onto your plate in bright green puddles that are perfect for sopping up with extra pita (just ask for some because there is no such thing as too many carbs).
If you ask for it loaded with toppings, you’ll have a pizza of sorts placed on your table, a Levantine pie piled with peppers, olives, feta, an easily devour-able plate of food that can act as a snack for many or a solo serving. The soft, pliable flatbread can barely hold the toppings and, when properly folded, creates more of a dough-y, pseudo-taco than a pizza—and that is what makes it all the more edible.
The vegan options at Ammatoli shouldn’t be dismissed—either by meat-eaters who oddly misunderstand veganism or by vegans who feel that a restaurant is trying to cater to them but doesn’t really care about creating quality vegan food.
And that’s because, outside of its heavy reliance on proteins in its entrées, Middle Eastern food has historically been widely favorable to the vegan palate.
Dairy—outside of yogurt and a handful of cheeses like akkawi and halloumi, the latter of which is like a Turkish/Cypriot version of Mexican canela cheese that one can grill and, among Ammatoli’s impressive list of mezza, is one of their simplest and wondrous—is largely eschewed. Instead, olive oil and citrus juices are added to dishes for creaminess and bite.
Like their spectacular foul.
A common breakfast item throughout Middle Eastern food, especially in Lebanon and Egypt, foul from Ammatolí is nothing but beautifully pale fava beans mixed with garbanzo beans and mashed with garlic, lemon juice, tahini and a heavy pour of olive oil. The result is a chunky, hummus-like bowl of dip—or, if you prefer, a bowl of beans that needs no flour-based forklift; a regular fork will do fine.
Foul joins 15 other vegan options in the appetizer section alone, including vegan warak arish, grape leaves stuffed with rice instead of ground beef; mujaddara, a wonderful concoction of rice, lentils, and caramelized onions, with Ammatolí actually getting a few to the point of perfect crisp, creating a sweet blend of soft and hard; the city’s best fried cauliflower, each floret drenched in an olive oil dressing and lathered in parsley and green onion…
This isn’t to dismiss their most approachable items; in fact, in these areas, Ammatoli succeeds in creating a handful of stand-outs with items that, personally speaking, I would have easily dismissed were it not for my fellow patrons.
Like a chicken roll.
Ammatoli’s Musakhan chicken roll—a play on the classic Palestinian dish whose star is not the protein but a berry. First, caramelized onions are added to the chicken along with olive oil, roasted pine nuts, and the star, sumac. Plucked from the bush found throughout the Levant, sumac berries are bright red—and when cultivated, they are dried and ground into a coarse powder that offers dishes a beautifully balanced tartness. In the case of this roll, a genuinely perfect lunch.
This isn’t to say Ammatoli is perfect in all aspects. Does their hummus match the puréed heaven of Babel‘s version in L.A.? No—Ammatoli’s version is more on the saucey side but it still has a layer of flavors that puts George’s to shame.
Within these Middle Eastern food layers, seemingly found in every single part of a plate, sits an introduction to the Levant for Long Beach. It’s found in the side of extra sauce attached their spicy garlic lemon chicken, a monster of a platter that showcases a half-chicken sitting atop a bed of rice. It’s sitting in the layers of salt and parsley and mint in their house salad. It’s laying between the fats of their ground beef kafta, a meat skewer that rolls with hints of clove, coriander, onion, and all-around addictiveness.
In other words, Ammatoli is one of the most exciting additions to the Downtown food scene and I happily welcome it to Long Beach. Or perhaps, as their sign indicates, maybe they are welcoming us.
Ammatoli is located at 285 E 3rd St.
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