An Armenian son drives north into the past and finds food like Grandma made
Taste of Travel: Fresno
FRESNO — In the 1960s, my grandparents had a small grape farm in Fresno, so a few times a year my family would board the station wagon in Gardena and head 200 miles north up into the San Joaquin Valley. Against the blazing sun on California 99, the Fairlane's bolt-on air conditioner was small comfort. But that ride was a tropical paradise compared to the sweltering days and nights in Fresno, for my grandparents' house had no air-conditioning. (As they came from rough times in Armenia, discomfort wasn't all that uncomfortable to them.) For my sister Jeanine and I, it was almost nonstop soda pop time.
Still, there were two things I looked forward to with relish on those trips: One was my grandfather Moses' vivid tales of immigrant life in New York City and Baltimore just after World War I; the other was going to eat at Darby's.
Darby's was a small Armenian restaurant owned by George Darby, a character straight out of a Damon Runyon story. I never saw him work. He would warmly greet my family, then return to intently watching televised sporting events. But the food at his restaurant was memorable, especially the shish kebab served over rice pilaf rich with vermicelli noodles sauteed in butter, and the kima made of raw ground beef mixed with spices and served on thick pita bread from the nearby Valley Bakery. Darby died in 1978 and so did his restaurant, but the long tradition of Armenian cooking in Fresno is still going strong.
And so are the traditions of the Armenian people, who began settling here more than 100 years ago.
The tradition dates back at least to 1881, when two brothers, Hagop and Garabed Seropian, settled here because they were impressed by the climatic similarities to their Armenian home, as well as the agricultural opportunities. Through their letters, they lured other immigrants to the San Joaquin Valley with visions of fertile soil and lush crops. By 1894, the Armenian population of Fresno County was 360, but events in Armenia and Turkey soon prompted an immigration swell. From 1893-1894, hundreds of thousands of Armenians were massacred by Turkish forces. This led to a large scale migration of Armenians to Western Europe and America. Many headed for Fresno and by 1930, Armenians owned more than 40% of the raisin acreage in Fresno County and their numbers had topped 25,000, which is about the size of Fresno's Armenian population today.
Recently my father, Tony, and I took the drive from Los Angeles up to California's sixth most populous city and checked out several Armenian establishments.
We found that when it comes to Armenian restaurants in Fresno, the big name today is George. George Koroyan, owner of George's Shish Kebab, George's Bar and Grill and Chicken George. Only breakfast and lunch are served at the downtown George's Shish Kebab, a rather plain room dominated by a huge picture of Fresno's favorite son, writer William Saroyan. Despite the restaurant's name, the real highlight is the lamb shank, a meltingly tender mass of meat cooked for hours with bell peppers, onions, celery, carrots, parsley and tomato sauce.
Seven miles north of downtown, on Blackstone Avenue, Fresno's main north-south thoroughfare, is George's Bar and Grill: a sleek, modern room, done in black and gray, with a long marble-top counter and a shiny open kitchen. The menu is more extensive than its downtown cousin (it includes shrimp, halibut and pasta offerings) and the setting and presentation are much nicer. Still, the lamb shank reigns supreme here. On weekends, a patio is a fine place to enjoy the food along with soft live jazz played past midnight.
Patterned after Los Angeles' Zankou Chicken is Chicken George. Originally, only chicken was offered, but recently the menu has expanded to include kebabs of lamb, beef and chicken. Still, the rotisserie chicken, served with a potent garlic paste, is the best order.
The newest addition to Fresno's Armenian dining scene is the restaurant Armenia, located in northwest Fresno, one of the city's nicest residential neighborhoods. Opened last December by Sam Krikorian (no relation), Armenia's pleasant dining room features a diverse and interesting menu, highlighted by several dishes not easily found outside Armenian villages or, in the United States, home kitchens. Among the dishes, some of which must be ordered 24 hours in advance, is Kavara kuefta, named for the village where the dish is traditionally served at weddings. It is a large meatball of baked ground steak mixed with milk, cognac, onions and paprika. Armenia also serves Russian and Georgian dishes, such as beef Stroganoff, chicken Kiev and borscht.
Armenian Cuisine, in a nearby shopping center, is another place where the menu reflects Russian influence. This family-owned operation features the cooking of Harry Petroysan, a former cook for the Soviet army. His tasty beef Stroganoff, the Russian blend of beef tenderloin, mushrooms and onions sauteed in butter and mixed with sour cream, is not exactly Armenian, but it is delicious. The Armenian standbys are all well executed, including shish kebab, lamb shank and sarma (grape leaves stuffed with ground lamb and rice and served with a yogurt dipping sauce).
One afternoon, my dad and I visited the old Armenian quarter downtown, near Fresno's Civic Center. The spiritual and architectural center of Fresno's Armenian community is Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church. Built in 1914, the church is still the hub of Little Armenia, an enclave of Armenian bakeries, restaurants, barbers and other small businesses. An excellent way to experience it is through Holy Trinity's annual Armenian Bazaar Food Festival, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Oct. 27. For it, church members create an amazing array of Armenian delicacies, including kebabs, pilaf and assorted pastries.
Though no longer the dynamic ethnic neighborhood it once was, the area still boasts two famous Armenian bread bakeries: Valley Lavosh Baking Co. (formerly Valley Bakery) and Hye Quality Bakery, both a short walk from the church.
Opened in 1922 by Ghazair Saghatelian, Valley Lavosh Baking Co. is now run by his daughter Janet and granddaughter Agnes. Although the bakery's biggest seller is Valley Hearts, small heart-shaped crackers, my family has always patronized the old bakery for its pita bread, a two-inch-thick round loaf topped with an egg wash and sesame seeds.
A hundred yards away is Hye Quality Bakery (source of the bread pictured on L1), which opened in 1957. Once a tiny store abutting the fire station, the bakery has gone high tech and now produces thousands of rounds a week of the Armenian cracker bread called lavosh.When the bakery's friendly owner, Sammy Ganimian, found out we were looking for good Armenian restaurants he quickly recommended Uncle Harry's in Reedley. "He has the best shish kebab around."
Dad and I went back to our hotel and after a rest and a feeble attempt to burn a few calories in the exercise room, we set out for Uncle Harry's.
On the half-hour cruise south to Reedley, we reminisced about great shish kebabs we have known. We agreed, of course, that no restaurant could prepare shish kebab like we had at home. My mom and grandmother were excellent cooks, and my Aunt Mary still is. But when it came to kebab cooking, no one could beat my grandfathers: Moses in Fresno and Nahabed in Los Angeles. The mention of charcoal to either would prompt them to instantly spring to their rickety barbecues, which were fired by dried walnut and apricot branches that produced an intensely hot fire, and rendered a juicy and aromatic lamb kebab.
Twenty miles south of Fresno, Reedley is a quaint town of 18,000, with a main street that looks Midwestern. Uncle Harry's is set in a 103-year-old building and the business is owned by Harry Horasanian, who grew up just a few miles away. A carpenter by trade, Horasanian became involved with catering and was eventually coaxed by friends to open Uncle Harry's in 1990. Shish kebab is indeed the way to go here, and like Harry at Hye Quality Bakery said, it may be the best in the Fresno area. The high-quality meat is briefly marinated in white wine, garlic powder and chopped olives then grilled to juicy tenderness. No, it doesn't compare to my grandparents', but I wasn't expecting a miracle. Inside is a picture of the old building during its glory days. It's a three-story brick and wrought-iron beauty that would not have been out of place on Bourbon Street.
When we got back to our hotel, my cousin Dave, who is a musician, had left me an urgent message: "For a musician that really cooks, stop in Visalia, 40 miles south of Fresno, and try the shish kebab." So the next day, after checking out, we took his advice and had a shish kebab lunch at Hagopian's International Delicatessen, a small Armenian food store that also serves lunch Monday through Saturday until 2 p.m. We dined on tender leg of lamb chunks that we rated second only to Uncle Harry's.
Richard Hagopian, who runs the place with his wife, Geraldine, can cook two ways: over charcoal and on the oud--the ancient Mideastern instrument that is the predecessor of the lute. In 1989 he was honored by the National Endowment of the Folk Arts for his oud playing, and the store is decorated with his albums, as well as Armenian art.
As we headed back to Los Angeles, it was comforting to know that Armenian dining in Fresno is alive and well. Fresno isn't a glamorous tourist destination. But if you're speeding up to Northern California, heading to Yosemite or just need some of the best ethnic food in the state, Fresno is an outstanding stop along the way.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Kebabs in Fresno
Where to eat: Armenia, 4029 N. Marks Ave., Fresno. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, $15-$35; tel. (209) 225-5545.
Armenian Cuisine, 742 W. Bullard Ave., Fresno. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, $20-$30; tel. (209) 435-4892.
George's Bar and Grill, 6680 N. Blackstone Ave., Fresno. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, $20-$35; tel. (209) 436-1654.
George's Shish Kebab, 2405 N. Capital St., Fresno. Open Monday through Saturday for breakfast and lunch only; lunch for two, $10-$18; tel. (209) 264-9433.
Hagopian's International Delicatessen, 409 N. Willis St., Visalia. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch; deli open until 5:30 p.m. weekdays and 3 p.m. on Saturday). Lunch for two about $18; tel. (209) 732-6344.
Hye Quality Bakery, 2222 N.Santa Clara St., Fresno. Closed Sunday and Monday; tel. (209) 445-1511.
Uncle Harry's, 1201 G St., Reedley. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner. Dinner for two $14-$27; tel. (209) 638-5170.
Valley Lavosh Baking Co., 502 M St., Fresno. Closed Saturday and Sunday; tel. (209) 485-2700.