Not too long ago, I took some out-of-town media colleagues to lunch quickly suggesting Kareem’s Falafel in Anaheim’s Little Arabia corridor. We were greeted by Nancy Hawari as all of us placed an order for a falafel sandwich — the very culinary creation the OC Weekly had just named the best of all its kind in our humble county. Upon first bite, the first-timers I brought with me became instant converts. That’s how it goes to any and all who dine at the longest standing Middle Eastern restaurant in the area. For the past sixteen years, kitchen magician Mike Hawari and his wife have given us great food and great service since starting out in 1996.
On my last visit, I did notice that Chef Mike was not present. Nancy was working in the back with hired help. When I interviewed Chef Mike, who was born in Nazareth in 1962, for my cover story on Little Arabia earlier this year, he told me that he has never had anyone else in the kitchen – lest secrets be revealed! But on other occasions, he had been out, so, while I took notice, I didn’t read too much into it. As it turns out, a few days later, the family had posted that he was in the critical stages after a longtime struggle against lung cancer and asked for prayers.
Sunday afternoon, there was another update: Mike Hawari had passed away peacefully in the company of his loved ones. A gregarious person who would always tell me to send my regards to Gustavo Arellano — who wrote an obit for our food blog — the news hit me like a ton of bricks. When I interviewed Chef Mike at Kareem’s for my story, I couldn’t include all that we talked about. With his passing, though, I wanted to share what he told me when I asked him how he became interested in cooking as he replied:
“I always loved cooking since I was a kid. My mom was a teacher. She used to come home a little bit late from work. Sometimes my sister and I would be home alone hungry! We didn’t know what to eat, so we went to the cooler, we picked whatever we had in there, and we tried to cook to make our own meals. That’s how it started. When my mom used to cook also, I used to help her out. I learned from her a lot.
He, then, followed up about what set Kareem’s Restaurant apart saying that everything was made from scratch just like the old fashion way whether it was hummus, falafels or fresh meat and personally made spices and seasoning for kabobs. Everything tasted great and the dining spot definitely added flavor to the city of Anaheim.
Rest in peace Mike Hawari. To Nancy, family and friends, I offer my sincerest condolences.