By Frier McCollister
Pasadena Weekly Contributing Writer
The tiny kebab shop Mediterranean Café has been quietly doing business in Pasadena since 1997. Tucked discreetly in the pocket of Shoppers Lane, which runs parallel to and just east of South Lake Avenue and services the expansive parking lots behind the bustling business strip.
Conceived by the late family patriarch Krikor “Koko” Bogharian and his wife, Sosy, the operation is now helmed by their children, Shant and Aline.
“We opened in this location in 2001,” Aline said. “Four years prior (to that), we opened in 1997 in what was then called the Plaza Pasadena Mall, which is now the Paseo. But after the mall had plans to turn it into the Paseo, we relocated to our own spot here on Shoppers Lane.”
These days, Shant is the chef and on-site presence, while Aline serves as general manager and spokesperson behind the scenes.
“My mom helps as much as she can,” Aline said. “She’s a little bit older now so she can’t be there every single day. I do all of the admin, HR, payroll. It truly is a family business. We don’t try to outsource anything. Even our employees are like family.”
The siblings graduated from Maranatha High School in Pasadena. Shant earned a political science degree from UC Irvine, while Aline studied engineering at USC.
“She’s got the brains and the looks,” Shant said of his sister. “Without her, I don’t know where I’d be. It’s that working in unison that makes it all work.”
The Bogharian family emigrated to Southern California from Beirut in 1994. Koko and Sosy had brothers in Pasadena, so the family landed here. With them, they brought their interest in food and cooking.
“He grew up as his mom’s sous chef,” Aline said about Koko. “He was always in the kitchen with my grandma. When we came here, he said, ‘Americans like to eat, and I have good food. So, I’m going to make it.’ He started planning from ’94 to ’97 to open this business.”
The family home was Koko’s test kitchen. “We ate chicken kebab every day for months until he perfected his recipe with my mom, giving each other notes,” Aline recalled.
The original mall location opened in January 1997.
“People fell in love with the food,” Aline said. “We have customers who used to come to the mall, and they still come. They knew my dad by name. They knew me. They knew my brother. We all grew up together. They had their kids and now their kids come and eat from us.”
Throughout this time, Shant was working with his father in the kitchen.
“I worked with him through high school and college,” Shant said.
“My dad needed the help and I wanted to learn the family business. It sparked my own interest in (cooking) and making my own marinades and things at home.”
Shant became engaged to be married in 2015 and Koko offered to open another restaurant for Shant.
“He said, ‘You know what? Now that you’re taking this step, we’re going to open up another outlet for you and your wife,’” Shant recalled.
Unfortunately, Koko was soon diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. “We had to rush our wedding plans,” Shant added.
“My father battled pancreatic cancer for one year,” Aline said. “He passed away in 2016. Since then, my mom is sole owner and my brother is the one man show doing everything he can over there.”
“This was his place. It was his baby. Every corner here, there’s a piece of him,” Shant added, recalling his father’s dedication to the business.
Aline said Shant and Koko prepped everything in the morning. Now it’s all up to Shant.
“He’s there at 6 a.m. Everything is made fresh. When we say, ‘made fresh daily’ we mean ‘made fresh daily,’” she said. “He’s at Restaurant Depot at 6 o’clock in the morning and then he goes to the store from 7 to 11 a.m. until we open. He’s prepping everything from scratch. These are all the recipes from my mom and my dad. It’s a family secret. Only he knows it, so only he can do it.”
The menu hasn’t changed much over the years and the dishes reflect the staples of the Armenian Middle Eastern diaspora, often described and labeled as “Mediterranean.” At the Mediterranean Café, the Bogharian family recipes can be found in every dish.
Highlights include all the standards: chicken kebab or shawarma salad ($12.75/ $14); beef or lamb kebabs ($13.25); falafel plate ($10) served with hummus, lettuce, tomato, tahini and pita bread; baba ghanoush ($5.50/ $9.50) grilled, mashed eggplant with garlic and lemon; stuffed grape leaves ($7.25 for six pieces); the vegetarian combo ($11) is a choice of any four vegetarian or salad items plus two pitas.
The “Mediterranean” fare here may be predictable, but, remember, it’s one guy executing actual family recipes every day from scratch. The care, attention and freshness come together in each dish quite convincingly.
When the pandemic loomed last March, Shant and Aline found themselves unusually well prepared. The restaurant didn’t have a delivery option previously or an Instagram account. Aline enlisted the third-party delivery services Grubhub and DoorDash just months prior to the lockdown. There was no hard pivot.
“If we didn’t have the delivery services, we probably wouldn’t have survived,” Aline said. “We’re a small place. We don’t have the extra staff to be fulfilling deliveries by ourselves.
“We’ve had some of our same employees for the last 20 years. This whole year with the pandemic, our priority was always to keep them on board no matter what happened. If it meant having to pay them from our own pockets, that’s what we did. We treat them just as our family. It really, truly is a family business.”
Aline explained their business comes from foot traffic. Offices, banks, dentists and medical offices provided the lunchtime crowd. When the pandemic hit, that dissipated.
“Everyone around us was gone,” Aline said. “So, our foot traffic almost died.”
Still, the Bogharians are grateful for their location, despite the encroaching presence of the nearby chain restaurants.
“We love our location,” Aline said. “We love that people can walk from nearby Macy’s or the nearby banks. We’re seeing the same people every day and forging these friendships. They’re not just our customers. They’re our friends too
“Pasadena is the new hotspot. It does get a little competitive, but we stay true to what we know. We haven’t changed anything. For 25 years we’ve been here, so obviously we’re doing something that the people like.”
The second generation of Bogharians serve the children of Koko’s first guests. The legacy continues to survive. Aline became emotional as she extended her gratitude to their following in Pasadena.
“We cannot thank you enough for all the support throughout all the years,” she said.
“You hear my voice cracking a little bit. We cannot say thank you enough. We say this with tears in our eyes. The support over the years has been tremendous and without that support we wouldn’t be here. If my dad could see that we’re still here, he would be smiling from ear to ear. It has been an incredible privilege to be part of the Pasadena community for all these years and we thank all of you for your continued support.”