Back in the early 90’s there was a little joke that went like this: What’s the height of optimism? An Ethiopian in a dinner jacket. For most of us we only knew about the famine’s in Ethiopia and didn’t really know what was going on there. I didn’t either until I got invited to a place in the Filmore called Rassela’s.
My first thought when my friends told me about the place was Ethiopian cuisine? Isn’t that like, you know, an oxymoron? I was wrong. Totally wrong. I walked in the door with my friends and the Maitre D was in a full on fitted black suit. Here was my Ethiopian in a dinner jacket and he had plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Rassela’s is an upbeat jazz club with a cool vibe when you walk in the door and it was an experience I never had before in my life.
Ethiopian cuisine can be a little odd for those who’ve never had it before. After you place your order your plate comes out and is covered with injera bread. It’s a special spongy bread that looks kind of like a tortilla, but tastes completely different. On top of the bread is your order. Usually stewed meats or vegetables. No knives. No forks. You eat with your hands by pulling off some of the injera and scooping up some of the stew. It’s actually quite a lot of fun and the food is nicely spiced and has a good taste to it. Their Doro Wat which is Ethiopian chicken stew has a taste like no other chicken stew you’ll ever have.
While I don’t know the details it has become obvious that they will be closing due to an alcohol beverage control notice that ownership is being transferred to Lily Nguyen under the name Era Restaurant.
Opening in 1986 Rassela’s has been a fixture on the Filmore scene for almost 30 years. I’m sorry I never got to bring more people there because the food was always excellent if I could get people past eating dinner using their hands. Ethiopian dining is quite a communal experience with the custom of feeding each other. There really is no better way to get to know someone than to have them literally stuff food in your mouth.
Yet another place that has gone away. I call it a place more than a restaurant because my Mother and Father used to talk about it all the time as a place you didn’t just go to eat, but you went to experience. There used to be more restaurants like that in San Francisco, but many of them have gone aways now.
Omar Khayyam’s was started by Armenian George Mardikian in 1947 in San Francisco [after he opened a restaurant of the same name in Fresno, CA]. While it was billed as an Armenian restaurant it really had a couple of Armenian dishes with Middle eastern and African mixed in after they were adapted for the American palate. When it opened there was a decent sized minority of Armenians in San Francisco, but the food was still pretty foreign to most people even in San Francisco at the time. You have to remember that back then spaghetti was considered ethnic food.
You can see on the menu I was able to find that there really wasn’t much special by today’s standards, but at the time George Mardikian was a restauranteur which for the time meant he wasn’t just a chef, but a showman as well. Mardikian started as a freedom fighter back when Armenia was having problems with the Ottoman Empire in 1903. His surname was that of the warriors being that Mardik meant warrior in Armenian. He work eventually led him to leave Armenia and come to the US around 1922. He went through Ellis Island and started life in the US in New York before moving west and ending up eventually in San Francisco.
He was very influential here and when he opened Omar Khayyam’s downstairs at the corner of O’Farrell and Powell there were pictures of him circulating around that showed him breaking bread with Dwight D. Eisenhower and Eleanor Roosevelt alone with other notables in local politics. As you walked down the stairs upon entering you would be met by the Rubiyat Lounge with it’s velvet tablecloths. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have to clean those if you think about it.
Mr. Mardikian also served as a food consultant to the U.S. Army which if you think about someone who served ethnic food to the public being hired to construct food for our armed forces then it must have been pretty good food. He introduced the public to flatbread, probably a form of pita that would last longer than your average loaf and still be tasty so I could see why he was asked for advice.
From the day it opened until it eventually burned down in the 80’s Omar Khayyam’s was a well known restaurant. It was the type of place that it didn’t matter if you could pay the bill, you still had to put a suit on to eat there. While I won’t get into that argument here there was a time when having to get dressed up for dinner was a part of the whole ritual of going out to eat.
I’ve had a thing with soul food over the years. It’s the one type of food that was always hard to find for me growing up in San Francisco. I had heard tell of this thing called grits, but never had a chance to try it. Sure there was polenta, but while it’s the same, it’s different. Then I found myself one night out in the Bayview and got introduced to Auntie April’s Chicken and Waffles.
Everyone I think has heard of chicken and waffles which started in Harlem when the jazz musicians would get off work somewhere around 4am. It was too late for dinner and too early for breakfast so they sort of did both, hence chicken and waffles. I happened to be with some musicians that night from the band Drivin and Cryin who while from Atlanta didn’t seem to be able to understand the concept of chicken and waffles. They understood them separately, but not together. Well we all had a good experience that night.
I grabbed a two piece wing and thigh with the waffles [you can also get belgian waffles for an interesting twist] that were drowning in butter, which in my opinion is the way waffles should be. Then you pour syrup on the waffles and lots of hot sauce on the chicken. The two kind of mix together a bit and waffles with hot sauce or chicken with syrup isn’t too bad actually. I could see if I was in a drunken haze at 4am and it would taste pretty damn good actually. Well, I wasn’t drunk, but it still tasted good. I had to sample some more so I got sides of grits, collard greens and mac & cheese. I had to try the mac & cheese to find out what made this soul food. I grew up on the stuff as a kid, but every soul food place I’ve read about always served it and there was just something crunchy about the top that gave a good blend to the creaminess underneath.
I was pretty full after that and I noticed that they had some interesting looking breakfasts so I decided I had to go back. When you go for breakfast and see a sandwich called a fat neck jones you just have to try it. It’s eggs, cheese and bacon or sausage on a bun that was the soul food equivalent of a fast food breakfast sandwich, but it was better, bigger and a hell of a lot tastier. I also tried the Rev. James Leach which is 3 eggs with green onions and six strips of bacon. With that much bacon you can’t go wrong plus you also get grits and toast with it [my take on grits? They’s grits, there’s not much more you can say about them].
I’ll have to go back again and try the catfish. While I can eat a lot I just couldn’t add the catfish in either time I went. Auntie April’s is cash only so be sure to have some money on you. It’s an inexpensive place to eat and you will not leave there hungry ever. They’re at 3rd and Newcomb so give them a try.