"When I opened on Monday morning at ten-thirty, there were people standing in line out front!" George Sarikhanian, the gregarious cashier/owner at Cafe Rita, told me when I asked him how business was. When he asked them if they were there for breakfast, they said they were actually trying to beat the lunch rush.
I completely understood their reasoning. Cafe Rita is always packed by noon. That's because eating there is like going over to your Armenian grandparents' house for lunch. George is a friendly Armenian bear with a bald head and spectacles. Rita is a smiling matron in an apron who never comes out of the kitchen. There are pictures of somebody's grandkids stuck all over the sides of the deli case, which is stuffed to overflowing with all kinds of interesting-looking food. George and Rita always have something cooking that's not on the menu. Try and order your favorite foods, and they will insist you just have to try the new stuff too. The place only has ten tables, and all of them are full by 11:30 a.m.
So it's best to have some sort of strategy in mind if you want to avoid a long wait. Eating lunch at 10:30 isn't a bad idea. Rita prepares a traditional Middle Eastern breakfast foul in the morning, and if you've never tasted the ancient fava bean soup with lots of lemon and garlic, this is the place to try it. George told me that the foul is replaced in the afternoon by an Armenian white bean soup — and then he insisted I try a cup. It was the spiciest bean soup I have ever tasted — call it Armenian chili, and you could win a vegetarian chili cookoff with this stuff.
My own Cafe Rita strategy that day was to show up at 3:30 in the afternoon and order a lavish dinner to go for five people. There wasn't a soul in the restaurant at that hour of the afternoon. By the time my housemates got home, I'd have the whole spread out on the table. "We are making eggplant kebabs right now," George said, pointing at the grill. "This is the most popular kebab in Beirut. We don't make this all the time; you better get some while you can."
It was a great suggestion. The skewers held alternating rounds of marinated eggplant and seasoned ground beef patties cooked gloriously close to medium-rare. When I got home, I spread a slice of unctuous eggplant with a little of Cafe Rita's outrageous garlic sauce and then put a juicy ground beef patty on top and called it an open-faced Beirut slider. Then I tried another one with the fiery red pepper spread called mouhammara added to the garlic sauce.
I also got a chicken shawarma plate with exceptionally tender chicken served with garlic sauce over rice pilaf, and an order of grilled lamb chops that were a little too well done. The three dinners came with two sides each. I got Cafe Rita's famous olive hummus, a version of the garbanzo bean dip with chunks of olive in it; some typical tart-green tabouli with lots of parsley and very little bulgur wheat; and some unusual Armenian tabouli, which is practically all bulgur with red pepper and spices, and no parsley. Corn salad with asparagus, orzo salad with black-eyed peas, and the mouhammara rounded out the sides.
In addition to the dinners, I got a falafel sandwich, made with soft fresh-fried falafel patties on a whole pita with lots of creamy tahini sauce; some of the excellent torpedo-shaped meat pies called kibbeh, and a bowl of the fiery bean soup. I also got some of Rita's homemade cherry baklava, which was spectacular. It was sort of like a cherry Fig Newton on phyllo dough.
Since most of the side dishes are served cold anyway, there wasn't that much to reheat. "You have to warm up the bean soup and the kibbeh, that's all," instructed George as he handed over the carefully packed bags containing my dinner for five. The bill came to $51.00 and there were enough leftovers for a decent lunch.
There's an even easier way to order a big spread — just ask for a "Rita's Sampler" and let George put together a variety of appetizers and kebab plates for you. Dinner for two is $22.95, and the Rita's Sampler for four is $41.95.
Both George and Rita Sarikhanian were born in Beirut, but their parents emigrated from Armenia. "We serve Lebanese food, with an Armenian twist," George told me. As far as I can tell, "an Armenian twist" means spicy as hell. And Middle Eastern food served extra spicy suits me perfectly. George's wife Rita does all the cooking. She grinds her own spices, chops her own herbs and prefers knives to food processors. Cafe Rita doesn't buy anything pre-prepared from other Middle Eastern sources except the pita bread.
"Taste this," George Sarikhanian said, shoving one of Rita's hand-wrapped dolmas into my hand the first time I visited Cafe Rita for lunch. I was surprised by the loose-wrapped grape leaf and the meaty stuffing. I think there was bulgur mixed in with the rice, and there were so many seasonings I couldn't identify them all. I had eaten so many canned dolmas in my life that I had long ago forgotten what the real thing tasted like.
"You like spicy? Try the Armenian kebabs," George told me as I stood in the cafeteria line looking perplexed. When I sat down and made a pita sandwich out of the grilled ground meat, I was astonished by the heat level. The Armenian kebabs weren't just a little spicy — they were fiery. Just like the mouhammara and the bean soup. The chile peppers were enticingly complemented by garlic and aromatic fenugreek. Is this typical Armenian cuisine? It tastes like Middle Eastern food cooked by a Thai chef.
I also had a wonderfully herby cabbage slaw on the side along with a bean salad with lots of green peppers. My tablemate got the filet mignon on a skewer. It was tasty, but once she tried the Armenian kebabs she coveted my lunch. By chance, we had stopped at eleven in the morning, just before the rush hit. While we ate, we watched the line get longer and longer, until it stretched out the front door.
Cafe Rita's daily specials are very popular. There's rolled steak on Wednesdays and leg of lamb on Thursdays. George once owned four Charlie's Barbecue restaurants in Houston, which might explain the Friday specials, which are baby back ribs and chipotle chicken — both served over rice pilaf.
Personally, I am most interested in the Tuesday special — cabbage rolls. Look for me outside Cafe Rita on Tuesday morning at ten-thirty. Cabbage rolls make an awesome breakfast.
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