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Oct 20, 2008 10:45 PM

Chowing in New Armenia* (Fresno)

I didn’t get quite as early a start as I would have liked on Friday so hit town just before 6pm, checked in quickly, and then made a beeline to Karabakh deli to find some picnic fare. Luckily, it stays open until 7pm on weeknights. This leans more toward the Russian-Georgian influenced spectrum of Armenian eats. I bought a selection of cold cuts: four kinds of mortadella and Eureka bastirma from LA. I’d tried Ohanyan’s bastirma and soujuk before and wanted to taste another brand.

Then I headed over to Fresno Deli. Here I bought baba ganoush and stuffed grape leaves, which would hold well in the room fridge over night. They locked the door behind me.

The next morning I headed over to Viktoria’s Place, as the Bee had reported that it opened at 8:30am daily, but it was closed at that hour. I returned to Fresno Deli when we made our stop at Occasion Bakery for bread and picked up spiced braided Karoun string cheese, olives ($2.99/lb!), cucumbers, tarragon soda, and pomegranate juice.

Mediterranean Restaurant across the street wasn’t open in the morning. I’m sorry to miss out on trying the hummus, and wished I’d purchased it the night before.

My fellow travelers enjoyed our stop at Occasion Bakery. While we were waiting our turn, we had a peek at the bread baking in the oven and asked how much longer before the batch would be done. “Two minutes” . . . certainly worth waiting for the sesame topped berberi bread. I liked the spinach boureg better this time. But what turned out to be really special were the freshly baked mamoul cookies made with semolina, filled with dates and the even better, the pistachio ones. We also got the Saturday special of foul with garnishes. No tahini bread available this time.

In King’s Canyon we had a short hike (with a piece of the boureg in hand for sustenance) then picked a spot by the river for our Armenian repast. The bugs were fierce, so we grazed quickly and jumped back in the car. Our mortadella taste-off included the beef and pork Mikaelian mortadella, San Daniel plain mortadella from Canada, San Daniel garlic and pistachio mortadella, and a pale pink and rubbery Russian mortadella that no one liked. My favorite was the Mikaelian ($5.49/lb.), but the plain San Daniel was also popular. The Eureka brand bastirma had more garlic and spicing than the Ohanyan I’d tasted before. Interesting to try, but it just didn’t appeal to me either.

Other than those two cold cuts, we liked everything else quite fine. The stuffed grape leaves from Fresno Deli are different than any others I’ve had and I’ll certainly pick some up again. We were sorry that Occasion is closed on Sundays and that we couldn’t return for more. Thanks much to the ‘hounds for their advice.


* "I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of
unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have
crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go
ahead, destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or
water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia."

William Saroyan

Occasion Bakery
4573 N Fresno St, Fresno, CA

Fresno Deli
2450 E Gettysburg Ave, Fresno, CA 93726

Karabakh International Market
777 E Barstow Ave, Fresno, CA

Viktoria's Place
Herndon Ave and Ingram Ave, Fresno, CA

Mediterranean Restaurant
4631 N Fresno St, Fresno, CA 93726

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  1. Compliments to the out-of-towners - for reminding people how much culture and food Armenians have donated to the mix in Fresno and the Central Valley. Now there are a few more stops I have to make and dishes to revisit.

    3 Replies
    1. re: fresnohotspot

      Thank you again for helping us out. Having grown up in Steinbeck country in what was a small town with a controversial author who went on to win a Pulitzer, Fresno and Saroyan held a certain kinship for me. This year, the 100th anniversary of his birth, I'm glad I've had a chance to visit again and experience the food.

      Besides I think Saroyan was a chowhound.

      "The most solid advice for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough."
      The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and Other Stories (1934)

      Herbert Gold essay on Saroyan

      "The Time of Your Life": A 100th Birthday Celebration for William Saroyan @ Stanford on Nov 20

      1. The pistachio cookies were incredible. I would drive to Fresno just to have one more of those.

        2 Replies
        1. re: Windy

          Yes, they were incredible. When I first spotted them on the counter top, I wanted to try them, but blanched at the price. I'm so glad you were able to talk the proprietress into letting us buy a smaller sampling of each.

          I found a recipe. Don't know if it's the same, but looks good to me.

          Nut-filled mamoul

          And how was the braided string cheese? I didn't get to try it.

          And for the writer in you ...

          "The writer is a spiritual anarchist, as in the depth of his soul every man is. He is discontented with everything and everybody. The writer is everybody's best friend and only true enemy — the good and great enemy. He neither walks with the multitude nor cheers with them. The writer who is a writer is a rebel who never stops."
          The William Saroyan Reader (1958)

          1. re: Melanie Wong

            The cheese is still in my fridge. I'll see if it survived the trip one of these days.

            ACT had a great production of "Time of Your Life" a few years ago; it felt very topical. I think Saroyan wrote it in a week, right after Germany invaded Poland.

        2. Wonderful report Melanie, it is such a compliment that you enjoy the chow that Fresno offers as much as we do!!

          1 Reply
          1. re: cocktailqueen77

            The SF Bay Area only has 2 armenian delis, well, 2.5 if we give Paul K's some credit, so it's a special treat to chow in Fresno. We've only had the cold stuff so far, I can't wait to try some kabobs, koofta, and more.

            On our home board, we often learn by seeing things through the eyes of visitors who take a fresh look at long-ignored restaurants or finding a gem among the bland. If nothing else, it often helps us appreciate what we take for granted. I hope to have done the same for the locals who shared so generously.

            Fresno's a great chow town. I'm still on the hunt for Hmong food and am contemplating returning for the new year's festival.

            "In the time of your life, live — so that in good time there shall be no ugliness or death for yourself or for any life your life touches. Seek goodness everywhere, and when it is found, bring it out of its hiding-place and let it be free and unashamed. Place in matter and in flesh the least of the values, for these are things that hold death and must pass away. Discover in all things that which shines and is beyond corruption. Encourage virtue in whatever heart it may have been driven into secrecy and sorrow by the shame and terror of the world. Ignore the obvious, for it is unworthy of the clear eye and the kindly heart. Be the inferior of no man, nor of any man be the superior. Remember that every man is a variation of yourself. No man's guilt is not yours, nor is any man's innocence a thing apart. Despise evil and ungodliness, but not men of ungodliness or evil. These, understand. Have no shame in being kindly and gentle, but if the time comes in the time of your life to kill, kill and have no regret. In the time of your life, live — so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it."
            The Time of Your Life (1939)

          2. That was fun and delicious -- I love browsing through places like Fresno Deli, with so many intriguing offerings. I agreed with Melanie about the various meats: I liked the smoked beef notes in the Mikaelian mortadella and the purity of the plain San Daniel. The spicing of the bastirma was really offputting, although I did like the texture. It wasn't too hard to convince the lady at the bakery to sell us six cookies (three of each kind), but that was undoubtedly because we were buying other things and oohing and aahing enthusiastically over the offerings.

            I get the feeling that most Fresnoans (Fresnans?) aren't really aware of the goodies hidden in the stripmalls they whiz past. Their loss!

            3 Replies
            1. re: Ruth Lafler

              I think it is more an attitude of taking these places for granted. I confess I go through this from time to time, until I read posts like yours and Melanie's. Then I come to the realization that some of these little stores and eating joints will fade away as the original immigrants die off or their children give up on the heritage. Then one day we will face the nightmare from the Stallone flick, Demolition Man - all eating establishments will be Taco Bell (silent, prolonged scream). So I will take up the call from other pages on this site - go and support these independent businesses. Try different foods and drinks. Enjoy them and bring a friend along, and tell others. I know, I know - doesn't sound anything like Saroyan. So I will just echo the great writer - try to really taste the food when you eat, we will all be gone soon enough.

              1. re: fresnohotspot

                I think you're absolutely correct, Doug. We need fresh sets of eyes every once and awhile, I know I tend to not be observant of small changes and new items that appear in places that I've frequented for so many years. I've started a list of places I've known about for quite some time that our fellow SF hounds have rekindled interest. I'm also on a campaign to eat lunch as as many of the little mom and pop places as possible to help them through these tough economic times.

                1. re: PolarBear

                  Well, by "most Fresnoans" I didn't mean you guys! But I'll bet if you asked ten people on the street in downtown Fresno about the food in Fresno, you wouldn't get much of a response.

                  I think we all can get lazy or complacent about our local food scene. Once you've found good tacos, there's less inclination to go out and beat the bushes for more. I've gotten pretty set in my chow ways and sometimes need something or someone to motivate me to go off and discover more.

            2. I did make it to Viktoria's for lunch last Friday for another calzone. It wasn't quite the same as before, the filling had more of a kick to it which I liked just fine, but they pretty much forgot the cheese which is not good. Next time will make a point of letting them know that I want gooey stuff running out when I bite/slice into it.

              Gave the glass display cases a quick look, seemed to be mostly dessert type items (I'm assuming) Zograb was fairly busy and I didn't have time to wait around and ask questions. Will save that for another day.