From this week’s District:
Sunnin is a restaurant turned outside-in, an alleyway of a place where fake balconies bulge out of the wall and decorative shutters stay permanently sealed. In that faux courtyard, the restaurant feels as though it has an open-air café stuck inside, lights streaming off the street and air rushing in with the kind of deadening warmth that usually crawls out of the start of fall.
There’s a certain level of expectedness in the rest of Sunnin’s styling (tarnished hookahs rest above the entrance to the kitchen), but the place isn’t nearly as stereotypical as some of the other spots on Second Street’s Mediterranean mile. Still, Sunnin is bound by culinary bonds to the rest of Belmont Shore’s golden triangle, a Lebanese trio completed by Open Sesame and Magic Lamp. Sunnin isn’t always favored first among that threesome, but it should be—the restaurant plates up some of the best meals along Second Street’s spice route.
Sunnin accommodates appetites for all seasons, but there’s no doubt that the place is best suited to these dwindling summer days. After all, Lebanese cuisine is inflected with a number of coastal cues, dishes inevitably lightened by their time spent on the Mediterranean. And that plays perfectly in Belmont Shore, where breezes actually blow off the ocean and foot traffic floods the sidewalks well past our Indian summers.
The best way to experience Sunnin’s Lebanese tastes is by gathering up a number of appetizers. There are all the foregone conclusions like hummus (a creamy chick pea dream spritzed with just enough lemon) and babaganouj (roasted eggplant elevated with an exacting amount of garlic), but to stick only to those standards would be to slight one of the strongest pages of Sunnin’s menu. Instead, dip through an order of shanklish, a Lebanese cheese crumbled into the consistency of grain mustard. The cheese is topped with diced bits of tomato and onion and is practically reconstituted in a pool of olive oil, greasing up the curds for a passing swipe of pita.
Even deeper in Sunnin’s appetizers is kibbeh, torpedo-shaped shells of burghul formed around a center of ground beef, onions and pine nuts. The oblong meatballs do get fried, but it’s only to create their carefully crisped skin, a crusty coat of wheat that conceals the kibbeh’s meaty innards. Also excellent are the bluntly described spicy potatoes, simple squares of the tuber cooked with heavy helpings of garlic and cilantro.
Falafel makes a fine appearance here (golden globes of ground up fava beans), but like the hummus, it’s a standard that shafts the rest of Sunnin’s menu. Instead, branch out with bastilla, a fillet of chicken sharpened with ginger and baked in phyllo dough. Like the crust of a buttery pot pie, the bastilla’s phyllo dough practically caves in after a single stab. But that collapse is a necessary addition to the dish, a flaky complement to the gingered chicken.
If you’re looking to sift through the staples at Sunnin, your best bet might be the shawarma. Both the restaurant’s beef and chicken variants are turned tender on a vertical broiler, that steel machine that spits out tiny flames as blocks of meat spin in slow motion. For handheld options, you can order your shawarma as a sandwich, too, with strands of meat stuffed into a crescent of pita.
There are, of course, plenty of vegetarian dishes to add to Sunnin’s Mediterranean menu, and that pinpoints perhaps the most important of all its attributes—the place can adapt to any appetite. But that’s also a hallmark of Lebanese cuisine as a whole. Sunnin’s variations, however, just seem so naturally suited to the California climate, almost urging you to forever linger in that courtyard space, hanging onto those final fleeting Mediterranean moments.
SUNNIN LEBANESE CAFE 5110 E SECOND ST | LONG BEACH 90803 | 562.433.9000 | SUNNIN.COM | OPEN MON-FRI 11:30AM-10PM | SAT 11:30AM-11PM | SUN 11:30AM-9PM | FOOD FOR TWO, $15-35