We sit a spell and people-watch in Aramex, a restaurant with more than 100 items on its menu (and counting), and a clientele just as varied.
On a recent hot Friday afternoon, Aramex restaurant near 16th and Mission streets is bustling with action. Noise from outside bleeds in, mixing with the sounds of crackling deep fryers, cooking baskets full of chicken, while merengue plays from a bluetooth speaker in the kitchen and industrial fans blow the warm air outward. It’s warmer inside Aramex than the rest of the Mission by at least two degrees.
One woman waiting at the counter couldn’t take it anymore.
“Goddamn, it’s hot in here!” she said as she tried ordering lunch.
She said she lives in Modesto but commutes to San Francisco for work. But the heatwave was turning the mild-mannered climate in San Francisco into something like the typical Central Valley heat she hoped to elude.
“It’s 100 degrees outside and my kids won’t even use the pool at home. Why the hell do we have it if they won’t use it?” she said.
Eventually retrieving her order of chicken, she was happy to retreat to her car. At least it had air conditioning.
Signs outside of Aramex entice customers with promises of a cheap meal. One advertises a $5.99 lunch special that includes four chicken strips, a biscuit and dipping sauce. Sometimes they’ve been under a heat lamp for too long – and yet other times the biscuits are oozing with honey and butter and the chicken is juicier than anything at KFC or Popeyes.
The menu here is a jarring polyglot that is influenced by Arabic, American and Mexican culture: You can get a burrito or tacos or you can get a chicken shawarma wrap. You can also get lamb tacos, or halal chicken. There are burgers and appetizers and the menu has almost 100 different items.
Then there’s the Louisiana chicken, which they make from scratch inside the restaurant. Aramex also offers pizza.
But wait, there’s more: How about some fried shrimp, fried corn-on-the-cob, and biscuits? And a lot of chicken. You can buy 50 pieces of fried chicken for $75. (KFC, in case you’re wondering, sells platters of 50 pieces of chicken for $78.)
Pedro Pablo was distraught that Friday afternoon. The 44-year-old was walking down Mission Street with a beer in a baggie before he stopped and asked in Spanish, “What would you do if your partner tells you to fuck off?”
Pablo made it clear that he was having a bad day, and he decided to share his relationship troubles with random strangers.
Pablo revealed that he had gotten drunk with some friends and one of his drinking buddies stole his phone. It took him an entire night to get a new phone but his boyfriend was still refusing to talk to him. Distraught, he removed a tall can of beer from his bag and took a drink, spilling part of the michelada onto the rainbow lettering of his black shirt.
Denzil Adams, 62, a full-time Uber driver, said he loves going to Aramex and eats there every day. The price is cheap and the chicken is delicious, he said.
“I love chicken and they’ve got some rice and beans that are good. The plantains are also good,” Adams said.
Adams, who is originally from St. Kitts and Nevis in the Caribbean, said he also likes how busy the area gets with the food carts because it reminds him of being home.
Paul Johnson ate at Aramex during his brief lunch break, scarfing down a couple of chicken strips that runs him $5.99, just as he had done at least 100 times prior. The 19-year-old works at 16th Street BART Plaza selling government-issued cell phones and eats regularly at the restaurant. He’s saving up money to get his own place and is currently homeless.
Crossing the street to visit a smoke shop on the other side of Mission, Johnson explains that the chicken strips have been the best meal he’s had at Aramex.
A car stops dangerously close to Johnson as he’s crossing in the middle of the street, but he shrugs it off and says, “It’s the city. They can’t do anything. There are cameras everywhere.”
Aramex keeps its prices low and that makes it popular with folks who are struggling to make ends meet. Juan Rodriguez visited the restaurant to buy food for himself and his dog, Ures, a weiner-shaped yellow chihuahua who was left tied to the door outside of the restaurant. He bought his dog an Arabian snack from the restaurant. The dog looked like it ate better than its owner.
“I came here because I was hungry,” Rodriguez said. “I always buy food here, but I bought him food too.”
Dexter Wiley, 63, likes to go to Aramex and order a pepperoni pizza slice with pineapple on it, one of the 11 varieties of pizza available at the restaurant.
Wiley, dressed in burgundy corduroy pants, a black fedora and a striped polo with a black sport jacket and alligator skin shoes, was unaffected by the warm air in the restaurant (and outside of it). Wiley had just gotten out of his daily sessions at Walden House, an outpatient behavioral health facility with three locations in the city.
Aramex is his favorite place to eat now, since the other pizza shop he used to go to closed down. He usually eats his slice and then hangs out on the western plaza of 16th Street BART Station. As it turns out, he really likes to people-watch.
Wiley, like the rest of the patrons at Aramex, goes there for the low prices.
Aramex’s manager, Adel Alghazali, is also the manager at nearby Mi Tierra Market at 2023 Mission St., which his family has owned for decades.
Alghazali said that he’s seen the cost of living rise over the past couple of decades and wanted to provide a low-cost alternative to other eateries in the Mission.
Why name it Aramex? His teenage children had a hand in that.
“It’s the new generation, the Arab and Mexican generation. We have a whole new generation of kids that are mixing so they call themselves the Aramex generation,” Alghazali said.
Alghazali said that there are whole generations of Arabs who grew up in Mexico or married into Mexican families. And he should know: He was born in Yemen, his spouse is Mexican, and their kids identify as Arab-Mexican. Their input helped develop the menu and the name of the restaurant.
But they’re not done experimenting with the menu or the decor, Alghazali said. He has plans to put a mural on the northern wall of the building’s exterior but he hasn’t finalized a design on it. He also would like have a patio with umbrellas and chairs that would extend into the BART plaza, but it’s still in the planning phases and conversations with BART are ongoing.
Those changes are beginning to take shape. Inside the restaurant, a new mural is being painted that depicts Alghazali in a black suit back in Yemen’s capital of Sana’a. He jokes around and says it isn’t him, at first, but then relents and said the artist he hired has been working on it for a long time. Unfortunately, perhaps a bit too long.
“Him and his wife, they sometimes just argue all day. But he’s the artist, he’s got crazy hand control. I hope he finishes it,” Alghazali said.