View more photos in Anne Fishbein's "Sunnin Lebanese Cafe" slideshow.
Warren Avenue, as it streams through Dearborn, just west of downtown Detroit, is the Main Street of Arab America, mile after mile of Lebanese restaurants and Iraqi kebab houses, hookah parlors and halal supermarkets. The local mosque is as big as a sports arena. Even the McDonald's is halal. And the heartbeat of Warren Avenue, even more than the enormous Arabic bakeries or the falafel parlors crowded with teenagers, is probably the big Lebanese coffee shops. Bright, worn places that stay open late but open early for coffee and fool, they blast Lebanese hits the way Oklahoma diners blast Hank Williams, and pump out enormous volumes of shawarma and stuffed grape leaves, fried kibbe and fateh, a morning dish that seems to consist of double handfuls of everything in the kitchen, tossed with thick yogurt and toasted pita. These places don't necessarily serve the best food in Dearborn, but you would not be wrong to stop at one of them if you had time for only one meal in town.
The closest equivalent to those coffee shops in Los Angeles at the moment is probably Sunnin Lebanese Café, newly relocated from a tiny storefront to the former Earth, Wind & Flour across the street. Sunnin is a loud, bustling, big-city restaurant in Westwood's Persian neighborhood, with crashing dishes in the open kitchen, jars of spicy green sauce on the tables of customers who know how to ask for it, and enormous platters of shawarma, chicken kebabs and falafel in constant motion around the big tables. I'm not sure either restaurant would welcome the comparison, but Sunnin seems to be evolving into the Lebanese equivalent of Junior's Delicatessen, a mile or so down the street.
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I was less fond of the original Sunnin, although I may be in the minority. The chef/owner, Em Tony, made her reputation at the Wilshire District's Al Amir, certainly the highest-toned Middle Eastern restaurant in recent history. I thought many of her dishes there were closer to clumsy, less-detailed versions of her refined Lebanese cuisine than they were to the direct, insanely flavorful cooking I had learned to love at places like Marouch and the late Mandaloun: Preparations like the sharp, aged-cheese salad shanklish and even the suave eggplant-tahini dip baba ghanoush were correct in form but oddly drained of soul. Em Tony was always around someplace, stuffing spiced meat into zucchini or lovingly shaping the beef-filled turnovers called sambousek, but at least to me, the food lacked a strong identity, a sense of place. At some point, I realized I had begun to think of Sunnin as a one-dish restaurant: Em Tony's kibbe makliyeh, fried capsules of meat and cracked wheat stuffed with a steamy, delicate mixture of beef minced with onions, continued to be among the better Lebanese dishes in town.
I think the noise, the elbows-in-the-labneh buzz, has made Sunnin better, and even the famous dishes, the hummus with crunchy nubs of extremely well-done beef filet, the cubed potatoes fried with citrus and garlic, and, of course, the kibbe makliyeh, seem a bit more vibrant. The moujadarah, an earthy mash of lentils and rice garnished with a fistful of fried onions, is kind of great; so is the juicy, lemony fool, or stewed fava beans. I like the diced grilled eggplant with tomatoes. There is a small, nicely executed subspecialty of deep-fried things served with lemon and garlicky tahini sauce — cauliflower, falafel, the occasional special of whole fish on a disk of fried pita.
Is it important that the spicy kefta, tubes of grilled ground meat cooked in tomato sauce, is stodgy and not particularly spicy; that a cinnamon-scented Monday special of pearl couscous with chicken featured couscous that was not quite cooked through; that the kibbe bil sayniyeh, which is more or less the kibbe makliyeh reconstituted as a big meat loaf, recalls something that might be served at a middle-school cafeteria in Beirut? I would submit that 95 percent of the customers concentrate on the spice-crusted beef kebabs served on a brothy pilaf; on the chicken kebabs served with a fragile, jellied garlic sauce; and on the rekakat, which resemble first-rate spring rolls stuffed with feta and herbs. Some friends may longingly look out at the shuttered old Sunnin across the street. For now, I am happier to dine in the present.
SUNNIN: 1776 Westwood Blvd., Wstwd. (310) 475-3358, sunnin.com. Open Mon.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun., 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. MC, V. Beer and wine. Takeout. Limited lot parking. Mezze, $5.50-$7.50. Main courses, $9.50-$15.95. Recommended dishes: moujadarah, hummus kawarma, fool, fried cauliflower, fried fish.