The eggplant and falafel panini at California Kabob Factory is a sight to behold.
You might order it expecting to get the namesake vegetable and a few fried chickpea balls pressed between two pieces of sliced bread. But “panini” is a serious misnomer for this knife-and-fork invention that’s stuffed with tomatoes and French fries and looks more like an oversized open-ended California burrito than the hand-held coffee shop sandwiches you’re used to.
On a recent visit, one came swaddled in a piece of foil paper that could barely be sealed around its girth and each bite was a reminder of the panoply of flavors that exist beneath the catch-all term “Middle Eastern cuisine.”
Same went for the falafel-and-tangy-mango panini — which instead of a sweet and piquant “brown sauce” includes California Kabob Factory’s version of the fruity-spicy Iraqi mango sauce, amba — as well as for the tortilla-wrapped paninis, which use yogurt-marinated chicken or beef schwarma instead.
In fact, everything at the month-old Middle Eastern eatery comes with a welcome twist from the norm, making it a much-needed family-owned alternative to Halal Guys and a small band aid for the gaping wound left by the closure of Kafe Neo last year.
Owned by an Iraqi family with roots in Anaheim’s Little Arabia, California Kabob Factory is strung across two storefronts on Orange Avenue just north of 7th Street. The dining room is simple but spotless and transactions are done at the end of a long prep counter that’s rarely filled with anything more than the vegetable fixins (since the hijabi in the back fires every chicken kabob and fries every falafel to order).
First timers would do best to start with the $15 combo bowl, which stuffs enough food for two to share in a tin the size of a frisbee. Like Halal Guys’ platters, it starts with a scoop of pillowy long-grain rice, but the similarities end there. Juicy slivers of spiced chicken and steak hold down one end of the bowl while creamy (not too garlicky) hummus, fluffy tabbouleh and a helping of stewed white beans even out the other.
In the middle sit at least three Iraqi falafels, which (apologies to HipPea) are the new falafel to beat in town. Shaped not circular but like palm-held hockey pucks, each one is coated in a crag so crusty it looks as though it was coated in a mixture of bird seed and Corn Flakes. Yet the tough-looking exterior reveals a soft, green center, bursting with herby goodness that begs to be drenched in the house tahini.
From the ingredients found in the combo bowl, you can make nearly everything else on the menu — from the gargantuan paninis to actual rolled burritos to an overstuffed pita pocket, which at $7 is one of the most filling lunch deals in town.
Stock up on the rainbow of sauces on hand for a tour through those panoply of flavors. A side of avocado or a chunky fattoush salad will tie the meal together. It might not be what you expect, but at California Kabob Factory, it will always be good.
Sarah Bennett is a freelance journalist who has spent nearly a decade covering food, music, craft beer, arts, culture and all sorts of bizarro things that interest her for local, regional and national publications.