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.