Chef Ararat El Rawi introduces Brooklyn to Armenian cuisine at Café Little Armenia

I was first introduced to the eccentric world of Chef Ararat El Rawi via social media after reading about his gourmet “pop-ups” sprouting around Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, born during the outdoor seating era of the pandemic. 

“I opened the pop-up because I wanted to try catering,” he explained, baffled that these small dinners snowballed into cooking classes and then serious interest in a restaurant. Chef Ararat then spent months looking for a home for his authentic Armenian-style cooking, duking it out with New York City brokers for a lease, painting over lime-green walls with red, blue and orange, and curating the menu for his new eatery – all leading up to a soft opening of “Café Little Armenia” in Greenpoint, Brooklyn in early January 2024. 

Empty booths at Café Little Armenia in Greenpoint, Brooklyn

The jack-of-all-trades chef, who has done everything from working at top-notch restaurants like Esca in Hell’s Kitchen and Harlem’s Red Rooster to dabbling in the carnival scene and brushing elbows with rockstar Prince, was surprised at the success and press that drew in New Yorkers from all boroughs to try Armenian cuisine at his pop-ups. We chatted in a humble wooden booth at his café over a plate of fresh tabbouleh, one of his signature dishes. 

Chef Ararat El Rawi in the kitchen

“When Esca threw in the towel, that’s when I started the little café. And it just ignited,” he told me with an unwavering smile, still in amazement. “It was kind of staggering to me, you know, like wow – The New York Post is calling, Oatly is calling, even Japanese TV too.”

After gathering momentum, Chef Ararat assembled his closest supporters to help him stockpile funds to turn his dream of opening a restaurant into a reality. And, he made sure to note, it was no easy feat, especially when many well-known restaurants in New York were shutting their doors for good. 

Nostalgia lines the walls of the café

The kitschy aesthetic of the cafe is a clear extension of Chef Ararat’s zany interests and experiences, family history and community that have shaped his culinary experience. We prattled under crooked but charming vintage family photos, drawings and a signed Macy’s advertisement of celebrity chef Andrew Zimmerman. They worked together for a handful of years, and at one point, the Food Network star taught him how to make “life-changing” risotto. There’s also a framed photo of his mustachioed grandfather, a Genocide survivor who relocated their family to Iraq. According to family legend, this very grandfather helped Lawrence of Arabia escape after a chance encounter in a local marketplace upon recognizing his unmistakable blue eyes.  

Of course, there’s a proud Armenian flag greeting hungry Brooklynites upon entrance. And this colorful “ad” works wonders – a captivated customer stumbled into the cafe midway through our interview. 

“You got spinach pies? Man, I’m Greek – when I hear pies my legs start shaking,” he said. “I look forward to eating them my friend, I appreciate you.” Chef Ararat laughed and dished back, “Oh my God, it’s beautiful. I’m a fat Armenian kid; when I hear pie I think of cherry apple.” He later shared the secret ingredient to these spinach pies – cardamom seeds, butter-softened onions and pine nuts, just the way his father made them.

As if the tricolored walls weren’t enough, there’s also a photo of his family with William Saroyan from his early childhood in Minneapolis in the seventies. He recalled his mother magically landing a dinner with the notorious author, which still surprises him today. “My mom somehow called him and got through, you know, and gave him the old Armenian ‘get over here.’ And I remember I was playing football, and my mom came up to me, telling me to put my Armenian clothes on, because William Saroyan was coming to dinner and she had to make tabbouleh.” He laughed, adding, “He just kept pinching our cheeks, amazed that we spoke Armenian in a place where there were no Armenians.” 

“It’s one of life’s crazy moments, and it transcended to me because it’s like – the nerve my mom had to do that…I got the same nerve, you know? To push ahead and do something. You know us Armenians, we’re curious – it’s just in our nature. We love people, I think, and we just love to know what somebody else’s story is.” 

The remaining walls are lined with nostalgia and stories – signed Tony Bennet albums, framed stamps of Edith Piaf, Ramones posters and original pencil sketches from “The Simpsons.” There’s also a handwritten menu, one of his early brainstorms, consisting of tabbouleh, a garden salad, ceviche, pesto chicken, fresh shrimp and a vegetarian sandwich. 

“It’s all very punk rock,” he said with a grin, handing me a handwritten menu. “This menu is like my identity,” he added. 

Fresh tabbouleh at Café Little Armenia

His so-called “family dish” is tabbouleh with fresh bulgur, scallions and a side of pita, just like his mom served Saroyan. His menu of the day also offers homemade spinach pies, mussels and what he calls a “pot dish,” a stew with assorted vegetables inspired by his mom’s “peasant soup” stocked with mint, parsley, dry herbs, squash, potatoes, meatballs with bulgur and a healthy dose of barley at the bottom. It’s his spin on a classic grilled cheese and tomato soup, considering the pot dish comes with a side of cheese bourek. The tabbouleh and spinach pies, he realized, resemble both his parents.“One’s mom and one’s dad,” he shared. 

He also serves an “Armenian plate” – a small smorgasbord of luleh or shish kebab, grape leaves, grilled peppers and onions, all on top of a smattering of rice. Once again, this recipe comes from Dad – the meat is prepped with scallions, parsley, sumac and onions, “just the way Dad used to do it.” Chef Ararat hopes to add a yogurt sauce to the ever-evolving menu. His sous chef Daisy, new to the culinary scene, whips up pupusas as an experimental addition to this mostly Armenian menu. 

Unmistakable Armenian colors at Café Little Armenia

Chef Ararat is also very proud to debut his salmon roulade, a dish with palmed and flattened salmon, later brushed with olive oil and black pepper, fried in a pan with peanut oil and served with leeks.

“This menu is like my identity.”

“The Armenian dishes are very traditional, ones that we made in my house. They’re not things I learned from a book – it’s what I learned in my family. My heart has always been in the kitchen,” he shared. His father, raised in the villages of Rawa, blended Iraqi cuisine and spices with Armenian cooking growing up. “We [Armenians] are always going to cook, but we adapt to our influences. The Iraqi influence from my dad came in the form of cumin, a lot of black pepper, fused with the Armenian scallions, onions and little things like that.”

The “Armenian platter” at Café Little Armenia

His recipes are also a testament to his mother’s cooking. “When my mom came here, she couldn’t get tomato sauce or paste, so she had to adapt to ketchup – and it was delicious. She’d cook it slowly and add water to it.” This took him back in time to his small Armenian tribe in Minneapolis and his mother insisting the kids remain true to their ethnic roots, especially through their family dinners. “It was important to my mom that we ate Armenian food and that we spoke the language. We cooked so much in my house. I have very real memories of tugging at the bottom of my mom’s dress and walking around the kitchen watching her cut tomatoes and chopping and rolling grape leaves.” 

“I think that food is probably the only form of art that we participate in that we need to survive.

He reminisced on fond summertime childhood memories, stuffing plastic shopping bags with hand-picked grape leaves from their backyard, watching as the matriarchs of his family rolled dolma while laughing at Jerry Lewis films. “We share when we eat, we share when we cook, and you know, it’s the one thing that keeps us together. I think that food is probably the only form of art that we participate in that we need to survive.

To be clear, the café isn’t completely ready, and his small team still has a lot on their proverbial plates. Chef Ararat, passionate about his dishes and eager to serve Brooklyn real Armenian food, quietly opened his doors regardless. He admitted that the place isn’t as polished as it could be, but he remains steadfast that his café will rise to the top. He is still amazed that the world, even New York, has not discovered Armenian food in the way Korean cuisine or Japanese ramen have taken over Brooklyn. “I just struggle to come to grips with that in today’s world. It’s 2024!” 

Dessert at Café Little Armenia

Evidently, Chef Ararat is striving to make Armenian cuisine known to the world, starting with Greenpoint, playing the long game in New York’s ruthless restaurant scene. We ended the interview with a filo dough “bird’s nest” and date cookies to-go; he had to start prepping for dinner and predicted it would be a busy night. “Saturday night in Brooklyn – it’s going to be great.” 

You can visit Cafe Little Armenia at 1035 Manhattan Ave, Greenpoint via Instagram reservations at @littlearmeniacafe. 

Carolina Gazal

Carolina Gazal

Carolina Gazal is a writer for the AGBU Magazine where she covers timely topics on Armenian identity and culture. She is also a freelance lifestyle writer at Insider, where she was previously a Freelance Fellow editing articles on food, entertainment and travel. She holds a BA honors degree in English and Communications from Boston College with a concentration in Creative Writing, where she received the Senior Honors Thesis Grant to travel to Sivas/Sepastia and pen her family history.


  1. This is a fantastic little restaurant. The food is amazing and Chef Ararat is a warm and wonderful personality. Highly recommended.

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