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An almost vegan food crawl with Theo Rossi, ‘Emily the Criminal’ star and hummus traditionalist


Theo Rossi is a connoisseur of pita bread and hummus. The actor considers the pita and hummus at Bavel in downtown’s Arts District to be some of the best he’s ever tasted. He should know — he eats some form of the bread-and-dip duo every day.

Rossi, who stars in the Roadside movie “Emily the Criminal” (streaming on Netflix) and is nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for playing Youcef in the film, ate a lot of pita bread and hummus while preparing for the role of a sweet Lebanese criminal who deals in credit card fraud.

5:03 PM Bavel

Sitting at a table in the middle of the bustling dining room in Bavel on a recent evening, Rossi rips off a piece of hot, puffy pita and swipes it through the extra-smooth hummus masabacha.

“The pita here is absolutely outrageous,” he says, moving in for another slice. “It’s super soft and just the right temperature. And the hummus is incredible.”

Rossi is about to embark on a three-stop, almost vegan, Mediterranean food crawl across the city. Over the past two decades, he has appeared in dozens of movies and TV series, including Marvel’s “Luke Cage” and “True Story” starring Kevin Hart and Wesley Snipes. He is probably best known for playing Juan Carlos “Juice” Ortiz on the “Sons of Anarchy” series. With a tuft of dark hair and a boyish grin, Rossi has a face that can project any background and time period. Youcef in “Emily the Criminal” is the first time he plays a character who is Lebanese, similar to his own background.

“I said to my mom, ‘Guess what?’ After 23 years, I’m finally going to play Lebanese,” he says. “And she says, ‘Let me guess, he’s a criminal.’ I told her he is actually a nice guy. She is always angry with the way Arab people are portrayed.”

“The hummus is incredible,” says Theo Rossi about the hummus masabacha in Bavel.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Youcef is a nice guy despite teaching Emily, played by Aubrey Plaza, how to commit credit card fraud. And the movie uses one scene in particular, centered around a family meal, to make you root even more for the two budding criminals when Youcef brings Emily home to meet his mother.

“Food is the thing that brings everyone together,” he says. Rossi comes from a large Lebanese, Syrian, Spanish and Italian family in New York, where people eat regularly. “There are a lot of people you hang out with in your life that you’ve never had dinner with, but there’s something different about when you eat with them. It’s almost like taking the relationship to another level,” he says.

For Rossi, food is a gateway to another life, one of the many ways he immerses himself in a character. To prepare for a role, he researches his character’s income level, where they grew up, what kinds of things they did during their formative years, and what they eat.

While filming “Emily the Criminal,” Rossi lived in an apartment in Glendale near the Americana at Brand mall. It is an area full of Lebanese-Armenian restaurants.

“What does Youcef eat?” he says. “Everything we eat now, that’s what I had pretty much the entire time I was shooting. It was a lot of olives, hummus, tabbouleh, pita bread. Just to feel a little connected to what I was doing.”

For him in Bavel there is a variety of vegetarian dishes (our waiter was happy to highlight the dishes that could be made vegan or vegetarian), including the hummus masabacha, olives, tabbouleh, cauliflower with tahini and oyster mushroom kebab. For the past several decades, Rossi has eaten mostly plant-based, though he will introduce eggs if he wants to or needs the extra protein for a role. Bavel’s pita bread contains eggs and today he eats eggs.

He dips a piece of blistered cauliflower into a bowl of pale yellow tahini.

“Wow,” he says. “You all need to get into that.”

The table in front of him is a feast and a drastic change in his daily diet. Rossi is obsessed with many things, including his diet and daily routine, some variety of the same food every day. He lives on a ranch in Austin, Texas with his wife and two sons, and he starts each day by cleaning out the stables and running five to eight miles. He then has two cups of coffee, black; along with two pieces of Ezekiel bread with almond butter; some raspberries, blueberries, strawberries and blackberries; an Apple; and sprinkled cinnamon all over. Then he has some melon. If he eats eggs (he has 12 chickens and there is never a shortage on the farm), he eats some eggs. His afternoon snack is a handful of raw nuts. For dinner, warm pita bread, hummus and steamed veggies from his garden. And if it’s Friday, it’s pizza night.

A man reaches for the olives in a restaurant.

Actor Theo Rossi goes for the olives in Bavel. Rossi, who stars in the movie ‘Emily the Criminal’, has been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

“It’s reassuring to me in this weird way because this business I’m in is so bizarre and crazy and unpredictable,” he says. “I try to make things as routine and normal as possible.”

In Bavel, he eats quickly and enthusiastically, serving himself large spoonfuls of tabbouleh tossed through a sumac vinaigrette and studded with chopped vegetables and herbs. At one point he says he’s going to drink the tahini that comes with the cauliflower, and he does, just a little bit. He pauses to carefully examine the mushroom kebab, speckled with sumac and seasoned with Meyer lemon.

“I’m a bit of a mycologist and I grow mushrooms on the ranch,” he says before taking a bite. “They just make everything better.”

“Holy s…” he says, then gestures to everyone at the table. “Have you got the mushroom yet?”

He eats half the order in seconds.

“I should probably slow down, but this place is so special.”

18:47 Open sesame

At Open Sesame, a Lebanese restaurant on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles, Rossi is relieved to see grape leaves on the menu.

“Some people call it grape leaves, some people call it dolmas,” he says. “Whatever you call it, it’s the best dish.”

He orders the food that reminds him of the meals he ate with his family in New York. Falafel, loubieh and of course the grape leaves.

When Rossi first moved to Los Angeles in the early 2000s, he supported himself between acting jobs by working as a barback, bartender, and server at places like Saddle Ranch on Sunset Boulevard and Miyagi’s in Hollywood.

“I’d say I was the best waiter ever,” he says. “I loved doing it.”

A man in a white shirt and yellow jacket stands in front of a patterned wall.

Actor Theo Rossi poses for a portrait before his Middle Eastern restaurant crawls through Los Angeles.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

He was already mostly vegan, although there weren’t many options even in Los Angeles at the time. He visited the Whole Foods salad bar and filled countless brown boxes with grape leaves and hummus. When he lived in Eagle Rock, he ate at Café Four maybe five times a week.

“I didn’t have much access to this kind of food,” he says when our second dinner arrives.

The green beans in the loubieh melt into the tomatoes, so soft they’re almost spreadable. Rossi reaches for the grape leaves as soon as they hit the table.

“This is pretty much the perfect food,” he says. “The texture, it’s just so comforting. I ate so much of it when I was a kid. He eats another without blinking and then tries the falafel.

“People can really mess this up,” he says halfway through. “Ultimately, you really need the tahini, but I don’t even need it for this.”

The falafel burns his palate, but he keeps on chewing anyway, enjoying the mashed chickpeas and crispy shell.

“We are going all out,” he says. “I just tore mine up like a honey badger.”

8:02 PM Sunnin Lebanese cafe

A man rips a pita bread in a Middle Eastern restaurant.

Actor Theo Rossi enjoys a feast at Sunnin Lebanese Cuisine during his Middle Eastern restaurant crawl through Los Angeles.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Rossi greets Nicole Chammaa, owner of the Sunnin Lebanese cafe, with a warm “kayf halik” as he walks through the doors. This puts Chammaa in a wave of Arabic as she ushers Rossi to a table in the back corner of the busy restaurant. The two talk in Arabic for a minute before Chammaa jumps up and puts a hand on her chest, visibly horrified.

“Don’t you eat dairy?” she says. “How could you not eat cheese? I love cheese. It’s OK. I’ll bring you some things.’

As she walks away, Rossi laughs.

“She reminds me so much of my mom,” he says. “All in advance. She hears me say one word in Arabic and she must know your whole life. It’s just the way it is. I love it.”

Rossi consulted relatives and friends in Lebanon about the Arabic he spoke as Youcef in “Emily the Criminal,” recording themselves as she reads the script. He listened to it for days, trying to get the pronunciation and inflections just right.

Within minutes, the procession of food begins. Looks like Chammaa found enough food for Rossi. A plate of stuffed grape leaves, bowls of hummus and babaganoush, spicy potatoes, garlic sauce, falafel, fried cauliflower, tahini dishes and a basket of warm pita bread. Chammaa and her brother settle into the booth next to Rossi to oversee the dinner.

The hummus at the Lebanese restaurant Sunnin.

The hummus at Sunnin, part of a Lebanese feast that also included stuffed grape leaves, babaganoush, spicy potatoes, garlic sauce, falafel and fried cauliflower.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

“I like to put the falafel in the pita with the vegetables,” says Chammaa, instructing us to do the same.

“Have you tried my babaganoush yet? It is the best.”

“This gives me a new impulse,” says Rossi, looking at the table. “It feels authentic and very familiar.”

He marvels at the softness and spice in the grape leaves, then moves on to the hummus.

“It’s the texture,” he says. “There are some interesting ones out there. I know you can even get chocolate hummus, but that’s not for me. I am a traditionalist. It just feels like you don’t have to.”

He slows down but realizes all too well that Chammaa is watching. At her insistence, he tries a ball of falafel.

“It’s like a flavor bomb,” he says. “It’s so good it makes you angry.”

Although this is their first meeting, Chammaa smiles and hugs Rossi like they’ve been friends for years.

“I’m glad this was our last stop,” he says. “It feels like home.”

A smiling man enjoys the food in a Lebanese restaurant.

Theo Rossi grew up in a large Lebanese, Syrian, Spanish and Italian family in New York. Large dinners are familiar territory.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Restaurants on the rise

Bavel, 500 Mateo St., Los Angeles, (213) 232-4966, baveldtla.com
Open Sesame, 7458 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 525-1698, www.opensesamegrill.com/los-angeles
Sunnin Lebanese Cafe, 1776 Westwood Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 475-3358, sunnin. com

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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