Chef Mahmoud Bisher

Chef Mahmoud Bisher, left, works beside Anwar’s Kitchen owners Anwar Jibawi and mother Amal Jibawi.

YouTube star, actor and comedian Anwar Jibawi may not be known to everyone. Those folks are missing out. The 29-year-old with 6.06 million followers on YouTube opened a restaurant in Downtown’s Fashion District less than two weeks ago. 

Those in the know have followed his recent spate of videos on YouTube—20 episodes produced during the pandemic called “Anwar’s Kitchen.” They feature him and his gregarious mother, Amal Jivawi, 53. So the news of Anwar’s Kitchen opening in real life might not be such a surprise. 

This isn’t one of Anwar’s comedic setups. His shawarma and falafel stand on the corner of Eighth and Santee streets has all the earmarks of Anwar’s comic misadventures—particularly when it’s a week following LA County’s ban on outdoor dining and a week before the state’s modified lockdown order.

Anwar’s Kitchen is an outlet for authentic recipes from the Palestinian diaspora and a testament to the ultimate secret ingredient—mom. Though the opening menu at Anwar’s Kitchen is exceedingly simple for now, guests can get a sense of Amal’s sensibility, influences and depth as a home chef by following the eponymous YouTube videos. 

With Anwar serving as her able comic sidekick and foil, Amal demonstrates the process of making complex regional dishes like mansaf and mandi, as well as her takes on dishes like lasagna and spicy shrimp. Averaging between 5 and 7 minutes, the videos are professionally produced, instructive and, thanks to the ineluctable chemistry between mother and son, ultimately adorable.

Palestine-born Amal is the eldest daughter in a family of 14 younger siblings. Anwar was born in Chicago in 1991, but the family—which includes his five brothers—soon moved to Southern California. Settling in Bell, Anwar is a Bell High School graduate. He began making short comedic videos in 2016 on the now-defunct Vine app but quickly established his popular YouTube channel and Instagram presence.

When the initial pandemic lockdown was imposed in March, he needed a new video concept that could be shot at home. “What if we made a cooking show (with mom) teaching me how to cook?” Anwar explained. “Anwar’s Kitchen” was born, starring Amal and her trove of authentic recipes.

Anwar quickly discovered a whole new fanbase.

“There were people just watching the cooking show and didn’t even care to watch my other content,” he said.

The notion of opening an actual restaurant hatched in April, when the show launched. Suffice to say, the ongoing mayhem of the pandemic was not fully anticipated.

“At that time, we thought it (the pandemic lockdown) was all going to be done in April and everything would go back to normal. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen,” he said. 

Although the family had no professional background in the restaurant business, according to Anwar, “My mom would always host very big feasts for five or six families. Every day is Thanksgiving for her. My mom’s dream, since she was a teenager, was to open up a restaurant. (For me) it was always, ‘One day I’ll open up a restaurant for you.’” 

That day arrived on November 30, and though Anwar and his able general manager Steven Vasquez are still working out the details related to website development, delivery logistics and interior décor, Anwar’s Kitchen is open for takeout and delivery. When outdoor seating is allowed again, there will be space for 20 distanced diners.

Downtown residents looking for fresh, authentic flavors from the Middle East should take the opportunity now before the place blows up on the socials.

Three vertical spits for beef and chicken shawarma, as well as one for gyro, are reliably rotating as they form the core of the opening menu. That said, fresh housemade falafel and hummus are always available as well. Here’s how it works: Guests choose a protein or falafel served as pita sandwich, wrap or plate. The pitas and wraps for beef ($12.95), chicken, gyro or falafel (all $10.95) are served with a choice of fries or hummus and pita chips. The beef is served with tahini, the chicken with garlic sauce, the gyro with a classic tzatziki white sauce and the falafel is served with pickled turnip and tahini. For plates that include yellow rice and salad, beef is $14.95 and the other three options are $12.95.

Diners can also choose Anwar style, for which protein is served on a bed of seasoned fries and pita chips with a toss of chopped tomatoes, parsley, jalapeno, garbanzos, hot peppers, thousand island dressing and “special sauce.” It’s a Levantine poutine and only available at Anwar’s Kitchen. The choices can also be committed to salad bowls ($12.95/$11.95). Finally, save room for dessert. There is positive buzz around the Amal’s baklava ($4.95), available in either pistachio or walnut varieties. By the way, everything on the menu is 100% certified Halal.

As to his chosen location in the Fashion District, Jibawi is clear.

“I wanted to be in the heart of Los Angeles,” he said. “If you want the most authentic Middle Eastern dishes, come try it out for yourself. We’ve worked really hard on the authenticity of everything on the menu.”