Manakish Oven

The visit to the Manakish restaurant triggered memories of my childhood. “Za-a-a-tar” my father would stretch out the word and wait for me to repeat it. “It’s good for you. It makes you smart”, he would say before offering me a flatbread covered in the “special zaatar sauce” (a mix of ground spices with olive oil) for breakfast while he was drinking sage tea. 

It was the Manakish with Zaatar and Whipped Labneh displayed on the menu at the “Manakish Oven” restaurant that prompted this memory. One can say that Manakish is a type of Mediterranean or Arabic pizza. The variety of toppings for the Manakish flatbreads is rich and fun: chicken shawarma, tri-tip, lamb, za’atar, cheese, hummus, vegetables, herbs and pickles.  It can be eaten for all three meals of the day. Manakish comes from the Arabic word “to sculpt”; after the dough is rolled, it is “sculpted” or hand-pressed to create dips for the toppings and later baked in a Marsal brick oven for less than 4 minutes.

Adam Taleb and Feras (Fred) Gaban were the first people to introduce the Manakish culture to the small town of Walnut Creek by opening the Manakish Oven and Grill in 2019. While the restaurant is located on a busy intersection of two major streets, it has an inviting and cheerful look. A variety of shades of Moroccan blue on the walls, vibrant yellow chairs, large windows and playful fanous (arabic decorative lamps) create the feeling of a fairy tale. The menu has 12 different Manakishes, 4 types of pastries (boreks and fatayers), lentil soup and some typical medditerranean starters. Manakish Oven also offers 6 types of sweets and traditional Middle Eastern drinks like sage tea.

When we came to Manakish, it was lunch-time, but I was very hungry and therefore ordered Tri-Tip Shawarma Makanish with hummus, shredded tri tip, pickles and tahini sauce. We also ordered spinach and feta fatayer (small pie) and lentil soup. As we waited for the order, I started my conversation with Fred. 

Finding yourself in a new country is no easy task, especially if you’re planning on building your future there. Fred moved to the United States from the United Arab Emirates when he was 16 years old, in hopes of studying and settling abroad. Although he came to America by himself, he was able to find a living with his relatives that migrated years before. Finishing high school early, he enrolled at Diablo Valley College at 17, and later transferred to San Francisco State to finish his business management major. From there on out, he was on his own, trying to figure out what he wanted to pursue as he entered the real world. He tried out several jobs with a few corporations, attempting to find a path that would satisfy him. The cubicles that he sat in day by day did not appease him, so he turned to working as an entrepreneur with his friend that he made at the community college. 

Adam was also a Palestinian that immigrated to America in search of fulfilling his dreams. Together with Fred, they began by starting businesses that involved importing and exporting. Shortly after, the two decided that they wanted to spread their love for cooking and creativity, landing them in the restaurant business. 

Most of Fred’s family is involved in the restaurant world. Some of his family have started a small mediterranean restaurant in Louisiana. Inspired by his family’s love at work, Fred decided to spread his love for Mediterranean food in Walnut Creek. He realized that the Mediterranean options currently available in the Bay Area did not reflect the cuisine, the aromas, textures and flavors he experienced in his home country.  With that, he decided to open the Manakish Oven where the  real food created from his mothers and grandmothers recipes would be served. 

“The beauty of the meal is in the gathering,” explained Fred. Arabic food, especially at his restaurant, is very hard to make because of the big batches that are required. “You can’t cook this food just for one order,” remarked Fred, “We always have to prepare in large amounts, and we make the food in a way to make it fresh.” 

Fred puts his heart into every item on the menu but the one that has a special place in this heart is “zaatar”. Just like me, it reminds him of his Palestinian background. “It took me a very long time to find good za’atar. There’s just no place else like the Middle East that has the best za’atar,” he says with a very warm smile.

2905N Main Street,
Walnut Creek, CA 94597
(925) 949 8334


Afandi Grill

Unfortunately this restaurant has closed but we encourage you to read their story.   

Walking into Afandi Grill for the first time, I knew right away that it wouldn’t be my last. Tucked between a coffee shop and a bodega on 1st Avenue, Afandi couldn’t have looked more classically “New York” from the outside. And yet, as soon as I stepped in, the unique mix of traditional and urban décor and menu of homestyle Uzbek foods with modern twists, made it clear that the small restaurant packs a big punch in distinguishing itself from neighborhood competition.

When I visited, Afandi hadn’t even reached its one year anniversary, but had already been highlighted in TimeOut as a restaurant to visit in the East Village, and been featured as one of five immigrant-owned restaurants in all of Manhattan by the Museum of Food and Drink in an event called The Economics of Being an Immigrant in NYC’s Food Industry.

My first dish at Afandi was one of the Baked Buns, or Samsas. The cold tomato sauce provided to pour over the top proved to be an unexpectedly delicious complement to the hot chicken, onion, and Uzbek spice filling. Between the contrasting interior flavors and temperatures and the perfectly flaky exterior crust, the dish was both refreshing and satisfying, and I cleaned my plate.

Next, I tried the Fried Bite Dumplings with spinach. Neither too hard and chewy nor too soft and weak, the dumplings were a perfect consistency and delicious.

Finally, I tasted the Fried Beef Lagman, a plate of hand-pulled noodles piled with beef, bell peppers, daikon, cabbage, and onions. After my mouthwatering first two dishes, I couldn’t finish my third, but it was scrumptious as well and when I reheated it in my microwave the next day, its lasting flavor and texture were testament to the freshness of Afandi’s ingredients.
As I tucked into my beef noodles, I was able to talk to Afandi owner and chef, Kamola Akhmedova, who also rang me up after my meal and served and provided recommendations to another customer while I was in the restaurant, demonstrating her hands-on, all-in approach to Afandi.

Kamola officially opened Afandi a year ago September. Originally from Uzbekistan, she attended school in Australia and then moved to New York with her husband. Three years ago, Kamola spent time documenting her home country’s cuisine and exploring the food scene in New York, and then started to work in restaurant kitchens to gain experience before opening her own. Her driving motivation, she tells me, was not only to bring Uzbek cuisine to New Yorkers for the first time, but also to create something new by designing vegan and vegetarian versions of traditional beef and lemon heavy dishes to bring Uzbek cuisine into the modern foodie era.

When designing her menu, Kamola wanted to make more “every day”, accessible versions of traditionally heavy dishes to make her offerings more comfortable and light. At the same time, she made sure to keep traditional dishes on her menu to showcase the history of Uzbek food; Uzbek cuisine has both Russian and Asian influences, and marries things like hand-pulled noodles from China with beef and onion combinations popular in soviet cooking. Kamola’s personal favorite Uzbek food is a cultural essential called Plaf, a rice dish served alongside most meals with fresh salad, yogurt, and hot tea. When I asked if she still enjoys cooking at home now that she cooks in the restaurant, she told me that no matter what, happy or stressed, she always loves to cook at the end of a day.

As she decided on what she wanted to serve, Kamola also decided on her ideal location. She chose the East Village because of the area’s diverse and young population, and because it’s where many New Yorkers flock to on weekends to try new foods and find new favorite spots. When she found the current Afandi space, it had been empty since 2014, and felt very old. Instead of renovating the whole interior, however, Kamola opted to keep the original brick on one of the restaurant’s large walls, and on the wall opposite, hire a graffiti artist to paint a large-scale piece; the décor itself represents how the traditional Uzbek and modern urban sides of Afandi’s menu meet.

After almost a year, Kamola says that she’s finally settled into a routine and built a family in the Afandi kitchen. The restaurant is closed on Mondays, when Kamola goes to a depot to pick up fresh ingredients for the week ahead, open Tuesday to Friday after 5pm, and has full hours on the weekends. Friday and Saturday are the space’s most crowded times, and Kamola herself is in the restaurant at least six days a week, every week. She explained that on weekends, when Afandi is at its busiest, managing customers and staff at the same time can be stressful, but when you belong to your kitchen and are both chef and owner, those stressful moments are also your favorite moments. Kamola’s proudest moment, she told me with a smile, was when, after about six months of operating, Afandi started to get consistently crowded and booked with reservations, and when there was a line out the door for the first time, she felt like all of her hard work and sleepless nights had paid off.

When I asked how she balanced her time in the restaurant and out, Kamola laughed and said that there is no such thing as a perfect balance of family and work. She described how important family is to her, and how grateful she is to have her husband’s family close by so that her son can stay with his grandmother at times. She also described how, after a year in business, she finally has a family-like team at Afandi, so she can trust them to take care of operations and start to take Saturdays off again to spend more weekend time with her son. She’s incredibly grateful for everyone on her team and says it’s very important to have a good team of people in the restaurant business. The first year of anything is the toughest one for balance, she told me.

Before heading home, I asked Kamola if she had any advice for others hoping to open their own restaurant. First, she said, get as much experience as you can. Kamola has a degree in hospitality management from the Management Development Institute of Singapore in Tashkent, but she explained that hands on experience is equally, if not more, important in the food industry. Especially in New York, you need the New York restaurant experience. Kamola said that even if you have to work for free, it’s worth it, because you’ll learn something new every day. She spent a year gaining experience, and she recommends taking as much time as you can, because the restaurant business is one of the toughest industries in the U.S., but if you love what you do, it’s priceless. Second, in opening your own business, it will feel like you are sacrificing time with loved ones because you must be present at the restaurant 24/7, you have to be flexible enough to come in anytime, and when all of your friends and family have their time and days off on the weekends, those days are your busiest working days, so it’s tricky to navigate. Her final piece of insight for hopeful restaurateurs: Be ready to realize that you have to live at your restaurant. Kamola said that sometimes she literally wanted to put a sofa in the back to stay overnight and make sure that everything went perfectly.

I left Afandi full of delicious food and excited to share Kamola’s story. I recommend Afandi to all of my friends in New York, and you should, too!

Afandi Grill
149 1st Avenue, New York, NY 10003

Tuesday - Friday: 12PM - 10PM
Saturday: 11AM - 11PM
Sunday: 11AM - 10PM

About the author:
Julian Bishop is a Chilean-American son of an immigrant and bona fide foodie.

Himalayan Cuisine

Editor's note: This is the fourth of a series of 4 mini articles written by Yara Elian, a High School Senior, providing an insight into how local Bay Area restaurateurs are coping in these uncertain economic times caused by the Covid 19 pandemic. If you are local to the Bay Area, please support these featured restaurants. If you are not local to Bay Area, please support your local restaurants- they really are in need of our patronage!

Born in the Himalayan Country of Nepal, Surya has loved to cook since childhood. He would learn all of his early cooking techniques from his mother, whenever he had time. He left Nepal in 2008 to study abroad in Denmark. In order to cover his tuition fees, as well as continue practicing his cooking interests, Surya began working at a Japanese restaurant. He started as a dishwasher and slowly worked his way up until he finally became the main chef and manager of that restaurant. In addition to his job at the Japanese restaurant, he also worked as a server at the Radisson BLU Scandinavian Hotel where the Japanese restaurant he worked at was located. This gave him the opportunity to learn additional skills in the hospitality and food service industry.

After receiving his degree in Denmark in 2010, Surya and his wife immigrated to the United States. Though he came with the intention of opening a restaurant business, he waited until 2014, further honing his skills by working at different styles of restaurants, like Mediterranean, Japanese, and Nepalese. Surya finally opened his Himalayan cuisine restaurant in Concord, California. Although it was challenging at first, Surya remarked that he was not afraid of challenges. He overcame all obstacles, one by one, and kept pursuing his dream. “I am blessed to have had the support of my family and my community,” he said, “I love that I can be my own boss and that I can give jobs to other people in my community. I hire the locals, the immigrants, and I love to give jobs to students- I know it is hard for them.”

Before the virus crisis, Himalayan Cuisine was a venue for all sorts of parties: graduation, birthdays, marriage celebrations, as well as catering to local offices and the Nepalese community. Surya’s catering services are well known in his community because of his ability to create authentic Nepali dishes with real Nepali flavors.

Kopila, Surya’s wife, helps out at her husband’s restaurant as well by managing all of the restaurant’s business details. While the crisis has usurped 70% of Surya’s income, none of his employees were let go. The chef makes sure to take care of his employees as if they were a part of his family.

For those who have never tried Himalayan Cuisine, Surya recommends ordering the traditional Nepali Chicken or Veggie Momos. He also recommends the Chicken Choila, and the chicken or lamb Sekuwa, that he prepares as it would be back in Nepal. His customers’ favorites are the butter chicken, garlic naan, goat curry, and Tandoori chicken There are more options for vegetarian and vegan customers as well.

"Yo Ati Mitho Chha" means "It is very delicious" in Nepali, and Surya's cuisine certainly is!

Himalayan Cuisine
2118 Willow Pass Rd Ste 400, Concord, CA 94520
(925) 490 3344

La Fritanguera: Covid update

Editor's note: This is the third of a series of 4 mini articles written by Yara Elian, a High School Senior, providing an insight into how local Bay Area restaurateurs are coping in these uncertain economic times caused by the Covid 19 pandemic. If you are local to the Bay Area, please support these featured restaurants. If you are not local to Bay Area, please support your local restaurants- they really are in need of our patronage!

La Fritanguera is a true family business. While Jennifer, the owner, runs the kitchen full-time, her husband does most of the shopping, her mother makes most of  the pastries, and her daughter helps out with everything else on a regular basis.

Jennifer was born in Nicaragua during Nicaragua's Civil War. When she was 5 years old, she took a trip by bus, and later by car, with her mother from Nicaragua to Mexico and then from Mexico to Concord, California. It was only years later that the family was able to reunite after their immigration papers were finally approved.

The La Fritanguera chef has indulged herself in cooking since she was 7 years old. She loved to treat people to what she thought of as “food art”. Before starting her own restaurant, Jennifer worked in retail and administrative jobs, but her heart wasn’t in it. Her life turned around the moment she was given an opportunity to start a career in the catering business. Jennifer willingly quit her current job at the time and went for it.

Opening her first restaurant on Colfax Street in July 2017, Jennifer adored her tiny but cozy location. However, the learning year was very difficult: dealing with food costs, payroll, staffing, and work-life balance. With time, Jennifer found her groove, and became deeply in love with her work. “I'm just happy in the kitchen,” she says. “I love this restaurant, it keeps me connected to my roots. I love Nicaraguan food and my mission is to have the world taste it.”

Adjusting to the COVID-19 reality has been tough for Jennifer and her restaurant. Her sales dropped 80% and she had to make significant adjustments to optimize the menu. She removed pre-cooked items like shredded beef, beef tongue, and one of customers’ favorites, Chancho Frito, in order to reduce waste. The first week she had to throw away these dishes because she wanted to offer fresh food. Now, La Fritanguera offers steak and chicken that are made to-go. La Fritanguera is open with shorter hours and days to save on payroll and utilities.

For those that have never tried Nicaraguan food, Jennifer suggests trying the family deals: 2 adults and 2 kids for $20.00. The ensemble includes grilled boneless chicken thighs, and beans and rice. Jennifer pairs the dish with her fav Maduros (sweet plantain), and a small side of their tangy cabbage slaw.

La Fritaguera
1819 Colfax Street, Concord, California 94520
(925) 446-6141

Yara Elian is a Senior at Northgate High School in the San Francisco Bay Area, who loves languages, cultures, food, and writing.

Chopan Kabob: Covid update

Editor's note: This is the second of a series of 4 mini articles written by Yara Elian, a High School Senior, providing an insight into how local Bay Area restaurateurs are coping in these uncertain economic times caused by the Covid 19 pandemic. If you are local to the Bay Area, please support these featured restaurants. If you are not local to Bay Area, please support your local restaurants- they really are in need of our patronage!

Javed Ahmadi always had a knack for cooking delicious kebabs. After immigrating to the Bay Area from Afghanistan, his friends were always excited to come over to his barbeque cookouts, knowing that they would have a special culinary treat each time. One time while his friends were over at his infamous cookouts, someone commented, “You are doing so well! Why don’t you open a restaurant?” The idea hovered in Ahmadi’s head. Soon, with the support of his family, Javed acquired a local kabob place which was already in business for the past 15 years. For him, adjusting to the new environment the first few years were exceptionally tough as he changed the restaurant to fit his style of cooking. However, Javed's reputation as an amazing cook and manager grew, and the restaurant got a huge following of loyal customers.

In 2019, the restaurant did exceptionally well and they opened a second location, but then the COVID-19 crisis hit. "Sales are down 70%", Javed remarked, "but we are all in this together''. Despite the takeover of the virus, Javed is very thankful for his customers who continue to support him by ordering takeout for pickup and delivery.

For customers who have never tried Afgan cuisine, Javed recommends ordering a family special that includes sizzling lamb kabob, tandoori chicken kabob, beef tikka kabob, beef kabob, and a side of daal. comes with family-sized rice, naan, and salad. It costs $49.95 and is enough for 5 people.

ChopanKabob has 2 locations in Concord and San Ramon. Javed runs the restaurant together with his brothers Abdul W. Ahmadi and Ahmad F. Ahmadi.
While “Sahtein!” means both “Bon Appetit!” and “You are welcome” in Arabic, the literal meaning behind it is “two healths”. When you say this word you are not only wishing double health, but also prosperity to those who are eating with you.

Chopan Kabob
2699 Monument Blvd, Concord, CA
(925) 689-5488

Yara Elian is a Senior at Northgate High School in the San Francisco Bay Area, who loves languages, cultures, food, and writing.