Omar Khayyam’s

Omar Khayyam's Famous Spinach SaladYet 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.

The MenuHe 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.

Sunrise Deli

I have to say I came a bit late to learning about falafel, but when I did I happened to find the best place in the city to get it and that is the Sunrise Deli. They specialize in Middle-Eastern cuisine which means it could be based on just about any country there so expect to see a few variations [definitely not Egyptian based as those falafel are made with fava beans]. Opening in 1984 at 2115 Irving Street this location has expanded to serve a total of three locations in San Francisco and one in Berkeley.

Falafel tends to be on the greasy side and should be eaten as soon as it comes out of the fryer. I’m not sure what type of oil they use here, but it not greasy compared to other places and the taste holds up even after it’s sat for awhile. I know this because we were looking for an inexpensive way to serve up food to people at my daughter’s first birthday so we decided to go to the Sunrise Deli.

There is a lot more to this place than just falafel, but that’s what brings you into the store usually. I’ve gotten a lot of my friends hooked on the fried paste that’s made from dried chickpeas [garbanzo beans], onion, garlic, parsley and a few other spices and fried up into little hockey pucks as my cousin who’d never had them before called them. I like to dip them in hummus which is actually a little like falafel that hasn’t been fried with more olive oil mixed in, but they can be stuffed into pita bread with a host of other ingredients and served as a sandwich.

Speaking of sandwiches, I tried the shawarma one day that in some places looks more like a middle eastern burrito rather than the way they are truly made, but stuffing the contents into a half a pita bread. There’s usually some chicken or lamb involved with onions, tomatoes and other grilled vegetables topped with some tahini sauce and pickles and these are wonderful. Their vegetarian plate will appeal to vegans since there are no animal products involved at all.

The best part about the Irving Street location is the price. I won’t knock them because I know that downtown rents are expensive, but a half dozen falafel is less expensive on Irving Street than it is downtown and since they’re so close to us that makes it an even better bargain. When we called in the order for my daughter’s party we had more than enough to feed a crowd of about 30 people for a little over $50. Of course we had the tabouli, babaganoush and olives as well as the pickled turnips [those are the pink strips in the picture that if you don’t tell someone what they are they’ll try them and tell you they’re quite good]. We rounded it out with several of their fresh sesame seed bread rings.

On a weekend when you want something that you can say it fried, but light the falafel at the Sunrise Deli is the place to go.

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Rice-A-Roni, The San Francisco Treat!

C’mon, ya’ll knew I couldn’t leave this one out right? Well, I know enough about advertising that sometimes they aren’t always telling the truth so I had to do a little research to see if Rice-A-Roni really was a San Francisco Treat.

It turns out they weren’t lying. It all started in 1958 when Vince DeDomenico and his wife enjoyed an old Armenian dish consisting of rice, vermicelli pasta and chicken broth. The rice and pasta were sauteed in butter before the liquid was added, giving the dish its distinctive taste. We call it rice pilaf today, but back then they needed a catchier name that was more American sounding. This was a time when spaghetti was considered an ethnic food remember.

They made a commercial with the cable car coming up the hill and the jingle, Rice-A-Roni, the San Francisco Treat! It was an instant hit. To top that off in 1964 after a trip to Rome and tasting fettucine alfredo they came back and invented Noddle Roni. And by invented, I mean they stole a traditional Italian recipe and changed the name to Noddle Roni Parmesano [it’s now called Pasta Roni].

By 1962 it was available all over the US and was catching on big time and soon because one of the top brands of side dish in the US. Oddly the San Francisco treat didn’t get it’s start in North Beach where most of the Italian families collected, but actually the Gragnano Products Co. which later changed it’s name to Golden Grain Macaroni Company started it’s life in the Mission District in 1912. Sadly, the Golden Grain Macaroni Company that started Rice-A-Roni is no longer a San Francisco treat. They have moved to Chicago where they do business, but the cable car is still a part of the product. They even have a history of the association of cable cars with their product on their website.

The funny part about all this for me was that when I was growing up we had Armenian Neighbors and my Mom being the food snob and cheap wouldn’t make something out of the box, but she’d make her own rice pilaf. I never ate Rice-A-Roni until I was somewhere around 30 living on my own and was a bit lazy at times. I never watched my Mom make rice pilaf so I didn’t know that if you sauteed rice and vermicelli in butter before boiling it in chicken broth you could make this very easily yourself. When my wife and I got married Rice-A-Roni became a staple in our house. Back then, my wife didn’t really cook and I never thought of taking the little extra time to make it. Now things have changed and we make our own, but there are those days when it’s just easier to pull out the box.

For those of you who like the good ole days here’s their first ad which I managed to find on You Tube: