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Hummingbird serves up eclectic dishes near UC

By Kerry Eleveld Special to the Daily Planet
Friday January 11, 2002

It’s high noon and a crush of students has just descended upon the Hummingbird Café. 

In a 15-foot long space, no wider than a bar, six workers busily cut breads and spread spreads to fill hungry hands. Weaving together a series of near misses, they rotate from deli counter to sandwich station and back to the deli counter for another order. Then comes the Baklava question. 

A woman who leads the 20-person line is looking down her nose at the Middle-eastern treats. “Does the Baklava have peanuts?” she asks. “I don’t like the kind with peanuts,” she says, resting her arm on her travel bag’s handle. She’s visiting. 

The diminutive cashier, who rarely flusters, flashes a puzzled look at the balding man working the smoothie nook. He finishes his mix then steps toward the dessert tray. Greeks put peanuts and cinnamon in their Baklava, he explains. “This has walnuts and pistachios. This is more Syrian Baklava.” He speaks with a soft Arabic accent, his left hand rhythmically kneading the air. 

Jamal Fares knows his food. He opened the Hummingbird Café on Euclid Avenue near the UC Berkeley campus a little more than two years ago, piecing together its eclectic lunch-to-go menu from 20-some-odd years in the restaurant business.  

From the classic meat-n-cheese sandwich to falafel and humus, the fare is a twist of Greek, Italian, Arabic and American cuisine. 

“There’s plenty of choices,” says Fares. “This is special for the whole area,” he adds, referring to the slew of eateries dotting the north side of Berkeley’s campus. 

Fares moved to the United States about 16 years ago with aspirations of becoming a computer engineer.  

“I came to be a student, just like everybody else,” he says. When that didn’t work out, he went back to what he’s studied since he was a kid. “My mom cooks. I smell it, and that’s it,” he explains.  

His mother is the inspiration behind the soup he’s serving today – “Syrian lentil” reads the sign. “It’s an old recipe,” Fares says. “Onion, ginger, garlic. …” he summons the heavens for inspiration, “… parsley, lemon.” 

Spanning the standing-room-only café, two neatly painted murals depict the small town where Fares grew up. An intricate system of canals and waterwheels irrigate the mountainous country of Syria.  

“All over the cities, these canals, 2,000 years old – Roman built,” he says. “Still functioning as we speak.” 

Stand long enough at the L-shaped deli counter, and you might count 30 or 40 images of hummingbirds around the place. Photos and picture book cut-outs pasted on the walls. Paper ones and wooden ones dangle from the ceiling. Even the clock chirps every third hour. 

“I love birds, especially hummingbirds,” says Fares. “They’re very fascinating little birds to watch and observe – how it lives, how it feeds, how it runs.” 

His stoic face set beneath a thick mustache, Fares stands about 5 feet 6 inches, wears jeans, lumberjack boots, and a plaid flannel shirt with its sleeves rolled up past his elbow. His stocky arms and thick-fingered hands look like they’ve been tilling earth somewhere in Iowa. But they’re poetry in motion when he’s making a smoothie. 

Fares began blending drinks back in Syria at a little 10- by 12-foot juice stand. A customer named Jeremy took a picture of it, with a woman sipping juice before a mass of fresh fruits, when he was there last year and it now graces his store. Fares says the small stand courted a steady queue. “They don’t mind the line,” he says. “They chat. They know each other there.” 

At the outset of the latest smoothie craze, about 10 years ago, Fares worked at a juice bar that helped popularize the fruity refreshments. “Now, they are all over. They don’t do things from what they learn inside,” he says, pulling his fist to his chest. “They follow paper recipes.” 

Not Fares. He mixes drinks from the gut. His dark eyes barely leave the blender while his arms swing instinctively to and fro, pulling this juice and that. He meticulously crowns each drink with some dabs of frozen yogurt and a few raspberries and blueberries, then personally hands it to each customer. 

Fares rarely lets anyone else work the smoothie station. Leaning close, he whispers, “They don’t do it like I do it. It’s done how I feel.” 

Diane O’Connor holds up her mango smoothie. “This is the only reason I come here,” she says. “When it’s hot, I’m here a lot. Beats the heck outa Jamba Juice.” 

O’Connor has been patronizing the café since it first opened, but she hasn’t been in for several months. “Looks like you’re still doing real well here,” she says to Fares. 

Forty-something gardener George Jaqua bounces in. “That sandwich was so good yesterday – that roast turkey – I’ve gotta have another one,” he says. 

“You gotta come in before noon or else the line will be out the door,” warns engineering student Rowen Jones. As Jones pays for his smoked turkey, he reminds the cashier that he owes an extra $3.50 - Fares extended him credit yesterday. 

During a lull, Kathryn Hetzner stops in to chat with Fares. Hetzner, who works with Berkeley’s College of Engineering, is leaving for South America for about seven months. She asks Fares how things are in Syria right now. 

He tells her that people there are stressed out and frightened. He said he had been planning a trip home. “But after September 11th, I was really scared,” he says. Of the family’s eight sisters and seven brothers, Fares is the only one who lives in America. “I really miss them,” he says. “I think I went too far and got lost.” 

Before leaving, Hetzner asks how the business is doing. So far, so good, Fares replies. 

“I’m glad you persevered,” she says. “You serve a good product, and it’s been nice visiting with you and seeing your smiling face every day.” 

Fares watches Hetzner leave. “Good food, you cannot hide it,” he says.