By Frier McCollister
Admittedly, I am late to the party. Even though Zephyr Mediterranean Grill & Café just opened at the end of July—as outdoor pandemic dining protocols were settling in at local restaurants—a buzz was loudly sounding around this place, its menu and the unusually high quality and authenticity of its food. Three months later, I can attest and verify that the initial burst of adulation and attention was entirely deserved.
That said, let’s be clear. Any reference to Mediterranean cooking in Pasadena is code for the cuisine of the Armenian diaspora. And so, it is here. Chefs Silva Bilamjian and husband, Hovig, ably represent the regional interpretations of Lebanon and Syria, where each of them grew up respectively. Assisted front-of-house by their daughter Gasig and her husband, the amiably articulate Mike Minassian—who also serves as press spokesman—Zephyr manages to convincingly distinguish itself from the other hummus and kebab joints in town (and we have many good ones).
The secret? If you haven’t figured it out already, it’s what I call the Armenian secret weapon: Mom. Silva brings her own matriarchal lineage of recipes, techniques and care to the cooking here. It also helps that the ingredients are exceedingly fresh, and each dish is made to order from scratch. Reflecting on this Armenian sensibility, Minassian suggests, “(For us) food is comfort. Food is everything. Moms are the ones who make it all happen.”
Silva rules the kitchen here but Hovig mans the small wood-fired oven that produces the Lahmajoun and other flatbreads on the menu, including Sujoukh sausage and cheese, za’atar and cheese, as well as a popular Khachapuri take and the Lebanese street bread Ka’ak Asrouniyeh. By the way, the flatbreads are a bargain. Running between $2 to $5 with the Khachapuri more of a main dish at $9, my za’atar and cheese flatbread had me questioning my allegiance to pizza. By the way, the housemade falafel, labneh and hummus all fall under Hovig’s expert purview as well. But more on the menu later.
The journey to this quiet, shady bungalow on East Colorado began for the Bilamjian family more than 10 months ago. Although the couple briefly owned and operated the restaurant and hookah club Babylon in Pasadena, the core family business for many years was the Good Food Market on Washington Boulevard and Allen Street. The market has long been a fixture in the vibrant local Armenian community.
After selling the market, Hovig was all but retired, but still restless. As Minassian asserted, “Ask any Armenian when they’re going to retire and the answer is ‘When I die!’”
Minassian had been an occasional guest at the Zephyr hookah lounge, which had previously occupied the site. It was shortly after the city had banned hookah lounges last summer that a “For lease” sign was freshly posted. Minassian began pitching his father-in-law on a restaurant concept premised on “quality and home recipes.” As Minassian urged, “This will be family.”
Hovig and Silva were sold on the idea and a deal was struck for the venue. Renovations began—including the installation of a full kitchen—with the intention of opening last December.
“First, it was December then we decided to push it to January and start the year fresh.”
By then word of the pandemic was out and uncertainty ensued.
“We wanted the dust to settle and see what our options are, what we’re getting ourselves into.”
The timing seemed to work out. With outdoor distanced dining approved and encouraged, the Zephyr’s lovely outdoor patio area—which comfortably seats 50 guests—proved to be a valuable asset. The café is set in an unusually quiet and shady pocket of East Colorado and the outdoor layout exudes a humble but irresistible charm. It’s the perfect setting to explore the menu.
The menu? The Mediterranean appellation suggests the usual suspects: hummus ($6); falafel ($9/$11); baba ghanoush, also referred to as mutabal here ($6); tabbouleh ($7) and kebab plates ($14-$20). Yes, this reliable line-up appears but again, all as scratch-made specialties.
There is also cheese boreg ($8) and montee ($12), not often found locally beyond the confines of the Su-Beoreg & Monta Factory on Washington Boulevard. The former is a light puff pastry stuffed with cheese and dried cured beef and the latter are tiny open-faced beef dumplings baked in a yogurt tomato sauce. How about foul ($6) the popular fava bean and tomato salad?
In addition to falafel and kebab wraps ($9-$11), the sandwich options include homemade Aleppo mortadella ($12) stuffed with garlic and pistachios and served with pickles. Along with the aforementioned wood-fired flatbreads, other specialties include sujukh sausage and eggs ($10) and sinee koufteh ($17) a beef and bulgar wheat mixture layered with spiced ground beef ($17). The fried cauliflower ($9) served with extra creamy tahini is superb.
By the way, if you are a fan of garlic spread like me, Zephyr’s robust rendition redefines the genre (and all but tattoos the word “garlic” on your forehead). Pro-tip? Every other Thursday, there is an off-menu house special. Last week, it was grilled branzino. Stay tuned to Zephyr’s Instagram account for Thursday alerts.
Suffice it to say, you really can’t go wrong here.
Most recently, on October 13, the café hosted the first fundraiser benefitting the Armenia Fund, which addresses humanitarian needs developing in the wake of the brewing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The proceeds of the day’s sales were donated directly to the fund to support the Armenian cause.
As Minassian posted, “Since we cannot physically be there to support and defend our homeland, every Armenian is doing their part by raising awareness and fundraising in order to provide much-needed humanitarian aid. We sincerely thank our customers, who come from all ethnicities and backgrounds, for helping support this existential and humanitarian crisis.” More fundraisers are planned.
Finally, let’s hear from mom herself. As translated by Minassian, Silva reflects on the magic she conjures at Zephyr.
“My inspiration and what motivates me to cook here at the restaurant is for those hard-working parents or individuals who are unable to make homemade food. I want everyone who tries my food to feel like they’re sitting at the dinner table with my family and me.”
Come home to Zephyr. Mom’s waiting!