I never took chemistry in college, so when I drove by the X20 Café in La Verne, I didn’t know what to make of the new restaurant that has replaced Charlie’s Bistro.
An afternoon visit with owners X20 owners Alex Manougian and Joey Kouchakian quickly cleared up the mystery.
“X20 means hugs to kisses,” said Joey, who along with his partner boasts Armenian heritage from Beirut, Lebanon. “In our culture, we don’t believe in extending just a handshake. We express our warmness and tenderness with hugs and kisses.”
Knowing that love will only take you so far, I decided to sample a few of their signature dishes. I wanted to know if the relationship was going to last or whether it was going to be a one-night stand as it with so many restaurants that make all kinds of promises but then leave you high and dry at the altar because of inconsistency and overall poor quality and service.
I had to admit the romance started well. As the pizza oven was blazing away, I enjoyed watching the steady stream of cars and humming along Foothill Blvd. on a rainy day in La Verne. A glass of house Cabernet also warmed my mood.
Before Joey, 41, and Alex, 40, disappeared into the kitchen, they sat down to share a few family secrets.
For 17 years, Joey owned the iconic Mediterranean Garden Grill in Monrovia, where his mother was the head chef. One day last year, Alex, who owns Spy Tech in La Verne, wandered into his restaurant and the two started talking. Alex expressed his dream about opening a Mediterranean-style restaurant in La Verne.
It wasn’t long into their conversation before Joey suggested that the perfect location for a joint venture would be Charlie’s Bistro, which was rumored to be closing.
“When I said Charlie’s, he kind of just blanked,” Joey said.
“That was exactly the place I had been thinking of,” Alex recalled.
Charlie’s made sense for one huge reason. As a former restaurant, it already possessed the needed infrastructure to literally get things cooking.
“If you wanted to start a new restaurant from scratch, you’re looking at least a quarter of a million dollars,” said Joey, who also owns a coffee shop on Myrtle Ave. in Monrovia, across the street from the Krikorian movie theater complex. “You have to install plumbing lines and grease trappers. All of that was already in existence.”
They negotiated the lease, secured a liquor license for beer and wine, cleared away the foliage that was blocking the restaurant from vital Foothill traffic, and began selling the city on their vision for a casual dining restaurant offering fresh, healthy food, popularly priced, where patrons would come again and again.
Despite the high casualty rates of start-up restaurants, Joey said he saw little risk in their new venture. “There’s no ‘maybe’ in what I do. When I do something, my effort is 100 percent plus. It’s 5 percent luck and 95 percent hard work. You build a business brick by brick.”
And customer by customer. No matter what, Joey, Alex or the wait staff (in my case, it was Elyse, a recent graduate of Pepperdine University) is there to greet, seat you, and make you feel right at home.
“We give special attention to everyone of our clients,” said Joey, who has an easy, confident smile. “In fact, our clients are our friends, because if you just have clients you can’t build a solid foundation.”
X20 definitely gets five stars for customer service, but without the foundation of food supporting their best intentions, few restaurants can succeed. In other words, the proof is in the platters of hummus, tabbouleh (parsley salad), grape leaves, jajike (Greek yogurt and cucumber salad with garlic and mint) falafel (bean medley with spices, minced garlic onion and parsley), chicken kebab and baby New Zealand lamb chops that I was about to sample.
X20’s signature dish is lamb, and it delivered in big bold font. Served over a bed of sautéed spinach seasoned with olive oil, white, lemon juice and fresh ground garlic, the tender chops, marinated in red wine and butterflied and grilled to perfection, were like none I had ever tasted.
“Our lamb is hormone-, cortisone- and saline-free and never frozen,” Joey noted. “Years ago, I fell in love with this dish in Monte Carlo [Monaco], and I recreated it here. There’s no gamey-ness or aftertaste. Because of the 100% quality, you never have to coat it with a sauce.”
Equally delicious and tender was the chicken kebab served with rice pilaf and grilled vegetables.
The hors d’oeuvres were just as appetizing. I especially loved the grape leaves, which burst with gorgeous accents of secret spices and a hint of pomegranate molasses that gave them that perfect blend of sweet and savory. Meanwhile, I slathered everything with hummus, which Joey makes daily by boiling the chick peas over a low flame for eight hours.
Alex and Joey love explaining every nuanced item on the menu and even suggested a strategy on how to each such offerings when you’re out with your dinner guests.
“We want people to experience the Mediterranean style,” Joey said. “You don’t have a ‘my-plate, your-plate’ mentality. Momma puts it in the middle of the table and everybody fights to eat it.”
Alex and Joey want to extend the feeling of family because they are family men themselves. Alex’s three children, Isaac, 11, Michael, 9, and Chloe, 7, attend Oak Mesa in La Verne. Joey has two children, Lia, 4, and Kyle, age 3.
At the same time, they’re not about to settle down when it comes to keeping their restaurant fresh and alive. For instance, they want to take full advantage of their brick oven to deliver flatbread pizzas. They also plan entertainment for which the cafe is well equipped, with its 200 parking spaces in front and another 200 behind the restaurant.
“We want to have music, we want to give an ambiance, we want people to get out of their depression,” Alex said.
Both Alex and Joey are sensitive to the stigma that they’re just another Middle Eastern and hookah restaurant.
“An authentic Mediterranean restaurant has to have hookah,” Joey explains. “Not having hookah would be like a Chinese restaurant not offering chopsticks.”
With the holidays here, businesses and residents might not have to head out of town to Claremont or Pasadena to celebrate their blessings. With a seating capacity for 90 people, X20 can easily accommodate large parties while still providing an intimate, hands-on culinary experience.
But if you come, don’t expect just a handshake and a bill. Expect lots of hugs and kisses to accompany all that great food.