Customers swarm Mediterranean food shop

DOWNEY — Sam Sarofeem is full of secrets.  Name any shop owner in town. Any one! Sarofeem says they all eat at his new restaurant.

He didn’t want to name names or anything, but he did anyway. On Monday, the owner of the Green Olive rattled off a pu pu platter of local restaurant owners he says frequent the tiny corner shop he opened three months ago.

“ Subway? The manager eats here,” he said. “The workers, they eat here, too. The people from the sushi place, they come to eat here. Some of the guys from the Tropicana come here. The cooks from Tacos El Gavilan. They are all coming here for lunch.”

Although the Green Olive on Lakewood Boulevard and Gallatin Road is little more than a hallway with some tables and food counter, it’s packed – daily.

Squeezed between a grill and a food preparation area, owner Sarofeem literally spun in in circles Monday trying negotiate the shop’s tiny workspace. He worked the register, visited with customers, and tried to train his employees as customer after customer squeezed into the 20-foot-wide shop.

At noon, there wasn’t an empty seat in the restaurant.

At 3:30 p.m., the place was still full.

On weekends, the line goes out the door.

“I hoped we would be busy,” he said. “But I didn’t expect this.”

Sarofeem opened May 17. On May 18, he realized he had a tiger by the tail. So many customers came that he could barely fill their orders.

“We was killed, absolutely killed,” he said.

He hasn’t slowed down since. He hopes to one day to be able to deliver, but right now, the shop’s too busy.

Like many a culinary tale, this one starts in the land of the Eiffel Tower. Sarofeem as a teenager moved from his native Egypt to France, where he started experimenting with food. In his early 20s, he moved to the United States and eventually settled in Downey. He co-owned a burger shop, and he opened a smoke shop in the same strip mall as the Green Olive. He was happy to have the businesses, but they definitely weren’t his passion.

He watched the cooking channel all the time He tried recipes at home. By the early 2000s, he wanted to open a Mediterranean food restaurant.

“I find out that I have to cook,” he said. “I have to. I cook for my friends. I experiment. I find out what they like, what they don’t like.”

He would stare out the window of the smoke shop, with visions of falafel dancing in his head. But he wasn’t sure all-American Downey would have a taste for Mediterranean food. Another Mediterranean restaurant in town was failing.

“I had this dream so long,” Sarofeem said. “But Downey wasn’t ready.”

Then Sarofeem saw other restaurants making it. Cuban places were thriving. A few Peruvian restaurants seemed to be doing well.

“I finally decided the city was ready for something fresh, something unique. So I wanted to give them Green Olive,” Sarofeem said. “People are beautiful. They eat junk because it’s cheap and there’s lots of it and they are used to it. But if you give them something fresh, they realize how good food is supposed to be.”

The only thing Sarofeem might like more than food is the human race.

If you stray into his line of sight, he will almost certainly greet you before you greet him.

“How was everything?” he will ask with the same expression a 5-year-old child wears when handing a craft to his mother for her birthday.

He operates with an extroverted mania. On Monday, he sat down at a table on the sidewalk outside the restaurant and struck up a conversation with a customer. As he spoke, he noticed the table was wobbly. He continued talking, got down on the floor and started adjusting the base of the table. A few minutes later, he took my silverware and began cutting into my salmon to show exactly how it was cooked. He insisted I try it right away. I obliged and ended up burning the roof of my mouth.

I am arguably the least qualified person in the world to review food. If it was up to me, I would exist completely on hamburgers and beer. They only experience I have with anything remotely Mediterranean is the food my cousins serve in the south of Spain.

At Green Olive, I ate a lamb meal and a salmon meal. They were delicious. The lamb was juicy, and it came with thin-sliced potatoes with some green garnish that made them taste better than regular potatoes. The salmon was slightly crunchy on the outside and perfectly soft on the inside.

Green Olive served up a funky green hot sauce that was so good I ended up mixing it with my potatoes after I finished off my lamb.

Sarofeeem doesn’t have a name for the sauce. He said customers call it “the bomb,” pronouncing the second ‘b.’

Sarofeem said the food is fresh and top quality. He even bought a machine that makes fresh falafel, saying he didn’t want to serve factory-made falafel.

Customer Elizabeth Avila said the Green Olive has become a family favorite.

“They’re very attentive when you eat here,” she said.  “They always come and they check on you. I don’t like waiting to get a napkin or something like that.”

She was happy she didn’t have to drive to Glendale or Los Angeles to get Mediterranean food, she said.

“For me, it’s very fresh and light and it fulfills me,” she said.

The restaurant has received generally good reviews on Yelp and other online rating sites.

A few reviewers criticized the food, but most complained about long waits.

Sarofeem said he was admittedly unprepared for the early crowds.

He’s beefed up his staff and they are faster now, he said.

He said the restaurant is his future. He wanted to start small, but he is thinking about opening more Green Olives. He believes Americans have a pent-up demand for fresh cuisine.

The shop is directly behind a McDonald’s restaurant.

“Listen to this, brother,” Sarofeem said of his favorite story of the last three months. “There was this mom, and she had her 6-year-old kid with her. She asked the child, ‘Do you want to go to Green Olive or do you want to go to McDonald’s?’ And the kid said Green Olive. Can you believe it?”

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