Ten years ago, Lodo “Lama” Rabten had vague dreams of owning his own restaurant, but the recent Nepalese immigrant knew only a few words of English and next to nothing about cooking. New to the Bay Area in 2002, he scored a job bussing tables at Fonda, foodie couple Haig and Cindy Krikorian’s upscale Mexican restaurant on Berkeley’s Solano Avenue. A hard worker with an intuitive eye for fresh produce, Lama quickly caught the attention of his bosses and began working his way up the restaurant ranks, first as produce shopper for the restaurateurs and, a few years later, as the manager at their 6th Street café, Jimmy Bean’s.
When the Krikorians began selling pieces of their small Berkeley empire – including T-Rex Barbecue and the now defunct Sea Salt – Lama was a natural successor. He bought Jimmy Bean’s at the beginning of September, changing the name to, what else, Lama Bean’s, but little else.
Jimmy Bean’s devotees — and there are plenty — will be relieved to hear that the menu at Lama Bean’s still features the popular $15 three-course meals. The Jimmy Bean’s chefs, a Mexican and Japanese-American who have been serving the same mélange of Middle Eastern and Southwestern cuisine for years, will stick around too. The changes that Lama has made have been subtle but well-received. His primary goal is to incorporate more locally sourced and organic ingredients into the classic Jimmy Bean’s dishes — the lamb shawarma, the hearty jumbalaya and Sunday night’s rib-eye steak dinner.
“Lama Bean’s will have the same menu, but better ingredients,” said Lama, a soft-spoken 35-year-old with a heavy accent and an affect as unpretentious as his restaurant.
Although Lama didn’t enter the restaurant business until he immigrated to the U.S. as a young man, he says his intuition when it comes to choosing ingredients is a product of his upbringing in a Nepalese town just outside of Kathmandu. Because meat was costly, his family ate lots of vegetables, most picked from his own garden.
All of the ingredients used at Lama Bean’s come from local farmers’ markets and grocery stores, which Lama personally visits six days a week. “I walk into Berkeley Bowl, maybe 90% of the people there know me. Monterey Market, 90% percent,” he said. “The produce is natural and I look at it and pick what I want. I enjoy that when I go there I don’t know what I’m going to use for the week.”
Lately it’s been lots of winter vegetables: squash, wild mushrooms and celery root. Lama is also closely attuned to his customers’ desires. “A lot of people want vegan, so I have a vegan pasta now. A lot of people want gluten-free, so I have a gluten-free bread now. Everybody can come in and have something they like,” he said.
Of course, some of the diners’ hankerings are a bit more hedonistic. “Like 80% of customers ask if we have a tap beer,” said Lama, who quickly obtained a liquor license after he bought the restaurant. Bottles of wine now line the shelves behind the cash register and he promises that the draft beer will be on the menu shortly.
The devoted customers are the reason Lama chose to buy Jimmy Bean’s rather than Fonda, which Haig Krikorian initially offered him. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Lama gestured around the room to a man wearing a Santa Claus hat and a woman with wisps of purple hair peaking out beneath a beanie. “All the customers are very friendly and local,” he said. “I know everybody’s name. That’s the beauty of a place like this.”
Purple-haired Phoebe Chandler, a mechanic at the auto shop that shares a building with Lama Bean’s, takes her lunch break at the restaurant almost every day. “It was nice having a little change without an enormous change,” she said. “I don’t think he’s lost his regulars. The core people who are coming here are coming here for it being a relaxed and clean place with reasonable prices and good food, and that hasn’t changed.”
Chandler said she suspected the Krikorians were preparing to pass the baton when they began neglecting maintenance issues and allowing Jimmy Bean’s to “get a little grungy.” Lama closed shop for a week in November to repaint the walls, replace the tables and chairs, and make the second, smaller room more inviting.
Even when he isn’t gluing down a loose wallboard or dropping off the morning’s produce haul, Lama can be spotted at the restaurant, sometimes with his wife and two kids in tow. He chats up the regulars and introduces himself to first-time customers. As for the local characters who have made the restaurant their stomping ground, Lama embraces them. He preaches acceptance and tolerance, explaining that he was raised Buddhist but now has no religion – only respect for others’ faiths and identities. He wears a rubber rainbow bracelet that he got at a Pride parade.
Lama is “gentle and patient,” said head chef Moses Curiel, who cooked for Jimmy Bean’s for 20 years.
Of course, it helps that the staff is seasoned. “They know what they’re doing,” said Lama. “Once in a while we have a meeting, but it’s like a family.”
Modest Lama claims he has never been certain why the Krikorians picked him out of their roster of bussers several years ago and helped jump start his career. But ambition and confidence are recurring themes in his success story.
“You learn one thing and you can learn anything,” said Lama, considering his history of rapid promotions. Even as a restaurant owner, he is eager to keep picking up new skills. His latest project? “Right now I’m learning how to make a pizza,” he said, pointing to the kitchen.
Lama Bean’s Café is at 1290 6th St. (at Gilman), Berkeley. Tel: 510- 5283435.