When you think Egyptian, usually one of two things happens. You think Great Pyramids of Giza or The Bangles get stuck in your head for the rest of the week. Whether it’s the Sphinx or “Walk like an Egyptian”, food isn’t at the top of your mind, probably because it’s rather hard to come by. For those who do know about the flavors of this ancient empire, Egyptian food opens up a world of rich, hearty flavors and aromatics. As part of our mission to unveil unique eats from dive bar to Michelin Star, we’ve uncovered some Pharaoh worthy food.
In San Francisco’s Outer Richmond district, just blocks from the beach awaits a small store front with an unassuming air. The only thing giving air to the treasures with in— a lit sign, in bright royal blue and gold featuring a mustachioed man, sporting a fez. On the doorway, two painted Egyptian guards act as the venues bouncers. The Sign beams Al Masri, which in English it translates to “The Egyptian”. A fitting name for the only Egyptian restaurant in Northern California.
As you enter, gentle guitar strums and the pulls of an accordion catch your ear. The patter of drums creates a melodic beat, as the music draws you in like the pied piper. Immediately you are thrust into a whole new world. You are transported to an Egyptian bazaar complete with festive lights, pottery, and fine linens. Tables surround a stage in the middle of the room where belly dancers perform, mesmerizing the crowd as they weave through diners. The bountiful flavors and the smell of succulent meats waft through the air and your mouth waters before your eyes see any food at all. Al Masri is a slice of Egypt right in SF. How did this magical place come to be? Chef Sausan sat down with us at EnjoyFresh, to share her story and cook up a authentic rating menu exclusively for EnjoyFresh. On night at Al Masri and you will be walking, talking and eating like an Egyptian.
How did you get into the business?
First of all, I was never in the restaurant business in my former years. I started taking belly dancing classes in Sacramento in 1974 from this gal, Jodette, who also owned a little eatery. So, whenever she had functions, she brought her food and I found it really interesting that there were always these foods at these functions. I was with her for three years and when I came to San Francisco, I started working on Broadway in those night clubs, when they were open in the 1980s. As I made my way around, I noticed the food was similar, and when I started to work here, at The Grapeleaf Lebanese Restaurant , for a fellow named Gabriel Michael (we got married three years later). I quit my Post Office job and I came to work here full time and I learned how to cook everything, bartending… etc. When we divorced about nine years later, it was unfortunate, and we are still friends, I bought him out. Then I just dove into the Egyptian aspect of it full time. So since 1974, I was introduced to this cuisine, arts and everything.
Tell us about a secret about the restaurant, a secret about your passion and what not…
My passion is in authenticity, and the secret to that is perseverance. It seems that people, in general, have this preconceived notion of what a belly dancer is. It is not a hoochie-coo dancer, or any kind on a pole or striptease, because that’s not what it is. It’s all lumped together for some reason. The dance is really a cultural expression, and it is learned in the home first and then expressed in the streets. It was actually the Egyptians and the Arabs that exploited it, because it was not a familiar sort of thing in Europe or any other parts of the world. Egypt was occupied by the English, and that culture was so different, they just had this thing about watching belly dancing. I want to keep the whole experience authentically real in this restaurant, and that’s why it looks like King Farooq time period. A lot of the recipes are even taken from the King Farooq time frame. I’m very much of a stickler for having the dance and food be as authentic as possible. I teach my girls how to dance, and consequently, the girls dance here. If they want to they can dance somewhere else also. So the secret is in keeping everything as authentic as possible. There are also dishes Americans won’t eat, but that I love. Like stuffed spleen. I love that but I won’t have it on my menu because people just look at that as weird. So that’s the secret. I know nowadays it’s all about trying to have as much fusion as possible into one little tiny dish, and to have lots of tiny dishes made out of that. That’s not where my passion is. My passion is in the authenticity of the big meals of Egypt and the celebration around it.
What do you love most about your job ?
Knowing that I’m offering authenticity; when people come in, taste it and watch it, they are being blown away that an American female veteran is doing all this. There’s no other Egyptian restaurant in Northern California, at least to my knowledge. Any other Arabic restaurant is going to be either Moroccan, Syrian, Lebanese, Armenian, or Turkish. There are several of those. Some of them are going to be delis. For me, I really try to do my research and I don’t try to rip my public off by passing off something that is not Egyptian.
What about your job drives you bonkers?
One of the things that I discovered about owning a restaurant is that it’s really difficult to maintain good help. There is this misconception that people think restaurants have a ton of money or make a ton of money, and in fact, a lot of them are actually working on shoe strings. The reason why some of them are famous is because they are backed up by, or they are owned by well-known chefs who have their names attached to these places. So what drives me crazy is in dispelling these myths, getting adventurous people in here, and keeping good help to maintain it.
Tell us a story about food, customer, your cooking, and restaurant
There’s this family of 8, they came in and sat in the corner close to the front of the restaurant. I think they were Palestinian. The first thing I think of whenever any Arab come in is, “Oh no, here we go again.” They are going to tell me my food is not cooked right because their family always makes it better, and the moms always cook better.’ So, the family ordered traditional meals, and they ate them all. They got up and danced with my dancers, and their kids had a great time. It was really something I’ll never forget. Because even the mother who was veiled got up and danced, the father got up and danced. They were all about celebrating the life of their culture in this restaurant. Their kids were well behaved. They loved the food. The whole evening was wonderful.
What do you think is the biggest problem in the culinary world?
I think we are brought up with watching the big celebrity chefs. It’s just like Hollywood. You follow certain actors and actresses as well as certain chefs. I’m glad the celebrity chefs are up there, at the Top Ten, but I think that they have been placed above on a pedestal that makes chefs on this level struggle to prove our worth with what we offer. So my biggest problem is the trends that the celebrity chefs set.
What do you draw your inspiration from and keeps you motivated?
Sometimes I just want to throw in the towel. But, I draw my inspiration first of all, from the result I get from teaching the dance, because I can prove that what I teach is authentic. And my students can see that. It’s just not something that comes from off the top of my head. I also draw my inspirations from Arabs that do come in here, especially on live music nights, when I have my buffet set up. They all make it a point to come to me and say, “That was wonderful, just like back home”.
What is your cooking philosophy?
Authenticity to the max! The only way I give creative license to what I’m cooking is when I do the desserts. Then I put into it whatever filling that I want. I may put chocolate chips in my Baklava, or I may put almonds and dark chocolate in the baklava. Otherwise, I keep my regular menu as authentic as possible.
What is your favorite food trend?
I don’t have one. I love Italian, French, and Mexican food. Trends drive me nuts. It’s like belly dancing, a new style comes out, it’s still not the authentic style. Trends just drive me bananas. The celebrity chefs and the food magazines put those trends together. I’d like to see magazine that says, “Food Authenticity”. Just keep it clear, no trends, no fusions, no nothing. That’s what I’d like to see.
What do you want people to take away from your restaurant, the whole experience?
The fact that they will have left having had an Egyptian experience. And, if they’ve been to Egypt, I want them to walk away feeling they have been back to Egypt. Had they been to Egypt between the 1940s and 1960s, this is what they would have experienced. The fabric there…, that’s authentic Egyptian tent cloth. When people have been to Egypt they recognize this. People walk away having experienced the authenticity of the whole thing — decor, dance, and food.Add to Favourites