By Anna Mindess
Café Raj’s open kitchen belongs to one man, whose commitment and concentration are evident as he shakes, stirs and tosses spices into a half dozen pans filled with aromatic curries, simultaneously bubbling on the range-top. He is Raj Raja, owner and chef of the Albany restaurant. Depending on the time of day, five to ten women complement his cooking crew by grinding spices, mixing chutneys and raita, slapping circles of naan dough onto the scorching sides of the tandoor ovens, and plating and serving dishes to eager diners.
During a momentary lull, I approach Raja with questions for our arranged interview, but find him soft-spoken, seemingly more comfortable cooking than talking. He defers my inquiries to his wife, Rosemarie Eichner-Raja, who tells me “My husband is shy.” But he’s also obviously busy, overseeing every single plate that comes out of his kitchen. “He does 200 or more curries a day, Rosemarie explains, “and every dish is made fresh to order, tailored specially for each guest.”
Café Raj, a beloved dining landmark in the Albany/Berkeley community, will celebrate its 14th anniversary on February 9. Eichner-Raja shares the restaurant’s history over a lunch of chicken tikka masala, tender lamb saag, aloo gobi, raita and assorted chutneys delivered to our table by a gracious server in an electric blue dress, named Kulbir, who has worked at the restaurant for almost 10 years.
“Raj and I met in France in 1991,” Eichner-Raja says. “I was studying comparative literature at the University of Paris and he was taking a break from his career as a bio-chemist. He started working the front of the house in Indian restaurants owned by his family in Paris, before venturing out to buy one of his own in the Latin Quarter, where he served as maitre d’. In those days, many Parisian Indian restaurants were quite upscale, with fancy, carved wooden chairs and the waiters in tuxedos.”
They couple married in Paris and, in 1997, moved back to Albany (where Eichner-Raja was born and raised). Raja proposed that they open a restaurant and offered to cook. His wife was a bit surprised, since he had never taken formal training, nor cooked in a restaurant, but apparently he had been paying close attention and had learned a lot from watching.
Raja is a natural chef. And, after his 10 years living in France, he has incorporated a few key elements of French cooking that give his dishes a delicious je ne sais quoi, such as his emphasis on perfectly balanced sauces and going to the market daily for the freshest ingredients.
Born in Pakistan, Raja also watched his mother cook. The dishes at Café Raj are traditional North Indian and Pakistani, with a little French flair. After I finish my lunch, I slip into the kitchen as Raja squeezes his spiced beef mixture around a metal skewer and lowers the kebab into the fiery hot tandoor oven. He confides that the French influence can be seen in his use of less oil, sautéed mushrooms, creamy soups “and some secret French spices,” he adds with a smile.
Café Raj serves beef, as well as lamb, chicken and fish but also boasts an extensive array of vegetarian and vegan choices.
When they first opened in 1999 in a space half the size of their current one, Raja and his wife envisioned a casual, take-out, food stand, with a large menu board from which people would order by number. They had only six tables where customers could wait while their meals were being cooked. “But,” says Eichner-Raja, “our customers sat down and wanted to eat here and linger so we had to transform into full service dining.”
Families with children have always been comfortable at Café Raj. “It’s okay if children throw rice or students come and study in their sweats. We want to be an extension of their homes,” says Eichner-Raja. The couple’s own two daughters, aged 8 and 10, often eat dinner and do their homework at the restaurant, surrounded by the staff of caring “aunties.”
Many of the 20 women who work at Café Raj are related. One cousin or sister-in-law referring another. “We’ve tried to have male employees, but they complain that the work of chopping 100 pounds of onions a day is too physically demanding,” Eichner-Raja quips.
Raja insists on hand-chopped onions for their firm texture. A food processor would make them pulpy. The language of the kitchen is Punjabi and it has been supervised for 13 years by sous-chef, Kulwant. But Raja works every day, both lunch and dinner shifts, and often shops at farmers markets between shifts.
While her husband heads the kitchen, Eichner-Raja, who taught French when they first moved back, takes care of the books, taxes, website, advertising, music selection and décor.
In 2001, the drop-off dry cleaners vacated the space next door to Café Raj and the couple were able to double the size of their dining room and kitchen. Even so, there is often a waiting line in this popular spot. Some customers feel so comfortable in the homey atmosphere that they actually frequent the restaurant once or twice daily.
“We’re only closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas days,” says Eichner-Raja. “There was one gentleman who came here to eat every day. And when it got close to the holidays, my husband worried about him. I suggested that he could eat leftovers. But Raj decided to cook him a special dinner and bring it to his home.”
Café Raj, 1158 Solano Avenue, Albany, (510) 524-5667, open Monday-Saturday 11:30am – 3pm and 5pm – 10:30pm, Sunday 5pm-10:30pm.
Anna Mindess is a freelance writer and sign language interpreter who lives in Berkeley. She is a regular contributor to “Oakland Magazine” and KQED’s Bay Area Bites, as well as to Berkeleyside. Follow her food adventures on her blog East Bay Ethnic Eats or on Twitter @EBEthnicEats.