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Ask Me: Tiny Baghdad Express was popular lunch spot

The corner of Tuolumne and Divisadero Streets, site of the former Baghdad Express. It became a popular downtown lunch spot in a unique triangular building at Tuolumne and Divisadero that began life as a grocery store.
The corner of Tuolumne and Divisadero Streets, site of the former Baghdad Express. It became a popular downtown lunch spot in a unique triangular building at Tuolumne and Divisadero that began life as a grocery store. ezamora@fresnobee.com

Q: I live and work downtown, and I’m curious about the history of a triangular building on Tuolumne near Community Hospital.

Steve Skibbie, Fresno

A: The first time the triangular building at 2707 Tuolumne St. and Divisadero Street appeared in Fresno city directories was in 1924 when it was a grocery store run by Cyrus Harris. In 1933 the grocery store was run by F.J. Gaither for one year.

The building continued as a grocery store under different owners until about 1953. H.J. and Martha Rainey ran the store from 1934 to 1937. Neva Hopelain and later John Hopelain had the store for the next 15 years.

By 1955 the building was vacant, according to city directories, until Manuel D. Montoya ran a bakery there for about two years.

For the next two decades the building housed non-food-related businesses. From 1959 to 1964 John J. Ross ran Equipment Services and Supplies, selling auto accessories. Wayne Golden and Lavel Barnes opened Lamar Electronics in 1964.

The building sat empty from 1966 until 1969, when Howard Dunklee opened Yosemite Coins.

In 1977 Adnan and Bonnie Astaragad remodeled the building and opened the Baghdad Express café. Digging around in the basement, Adnan Astaragad found cans and bottles from almost every era of the building’s history.

Baghdad Express co-owner Adnan Astaragad had worked as a cook in Baghdad and named the café after that city’s familiar train.

Astaragad had worked as a cook in Baghdad, Iraq during the 1950s and named the café after that city’s familiar train. The café was a popular downtown Fresno eatery for 10 years.

A 1977 “Around Here” column by Fresno Bee writer Woody Laughnan carried the headline, “Try Baghdad Express for Taste Treat.”

The café served hot and cold sandwiches and “full dinners with a Middle East flavor,” Laughnan wrote. He dubbed the hot shawarma sandwich “the best dish in the house” made with “thinly cut sirloin layered on a Turkish gyro, with a decorative camel on the top, with a piece of fat dripping on the cooking meat to keep it moist.” The sandwich was served with salad or pilaf for $2.40 or on a combination plate with dolma, kufta, salad and pilaf for $3.75.

The tiny café with just 10 seats also had a brisk takeout business and sold prepared foods and “delightful pastries,” Laughnan wrote. Its shelves were stocked with “Arabic foods, spices, nuts and herbs.”

Baghdad Express was described as a “tiny island of casual camaraderie” when it closed in 1987 after new owner Majida Mughannam lost her lease on the building.

There are no entries for the building in city directories from 1988 to 2003, but from 2004 to 2011 it housed the Coffi N More coffee shop. The building has been vacant since 2012.

Q: What is the history of the blues club Jericho Inn in west Fresno? I think the band Redbone sang a song about the place.

Dan Harikian, Fresno

A: The Jericho Café at Fruit and Church avenues was part of a complex including a bar, hotel and cabins that gained a reputation for drugs, gambling and prostitution in the 1950s.

A 1956 Fresno Bee story said the Jericho was “the hub of social activity of a form which has kept the sheriff’s office on the go since the place was built in post-World War II years.”

The café consisted mainly of a bar, some tables and chairs and a jukebox that provided most of the light, The Bee said.

“The records on the jukebox were all of a type considered ‘cool,’ with a throbbing heavy bass beat and lots of wailing and groaning saxophones,” the Bee story said. “To this couples danced in a highly individualized style, sometimes moving everything except their feet.”

In 1951 The Bee reported that sheriff’s deputies broke up poker games and dice tables and arrested 75 men for gambling – and listed all their names and ages in the story.

The man who owned the café was arrested in 1953 for shooting and killing another resident of the Jericho hotel.

In 1954 the owners were charged with allowing prostitution at the Jericho. In 1956 the State Board of Equalization pulled the café’s liquor license, and it was closed by a Superior Court order as a “public nuisance.” The headline of a Bee story declared, “Jericho Café Is Closed For Year As Dope Hangout.” Undercover officers testified they bought marijuana cigarettes at the Jericho.

The hub of social activity of a form which has kept the sheriff’s office on the go

Fresno Bee description of the Jericho Café

The court-ordered closure was not contested by the owners or operators, and the Jericho didn’t reopen.

The Native American rock band Redbone was formed in 1969 by brothers Pat and Lolly Vegas, who were born in Coalinga, grew up in Fresno and later moved to the Los Angeles area. Lolly Vegas died in 2010 at age 70.

Lyrics from the Redbone song “Jericho” seem to reference the famous biblical story of the Battle of Jericho, not the infamous bar, which closed 11 years before the band was formed.

The song’s chorus goes, “And let your trumpet blow, ’round the walls of Jericho, let your mighty voices sound, until the walls come tumbling down.” In the book of Joshua in the Bible, God tells Joshua to march around Jericho for six days with all his soldiers and seven priests carrying trumpets and ram’s horns. On the seventh day Joshua’s army and the priests marched around Jericho seven times, with the priests blowing the horns. On the seventh pass, the soldiers gave a loud shout and the walls of the fortified city fell down.

A call for questions

Dear Readers,

In the eight years I’ve been writing Ask Me, I’ve seen the dreaded summer slump happen every year, when my stash of questions, like my parched front yard, seems to dry up.

Now that fall is upon us, if you have a question you’ve been meaning to ask, please send it in.

Also, when I retired in 2012, I left behind an enormous stack of unanswered questions, which were discarded. Who knew then that I’d return to resume the column? So, if you sent in a question years ago that never made it into Ask Me, please send it in again.

And if you’re wondering why your question hasn’t been answered yet, it’s probably because some answers are harder to unearth than others.

Thanks for reading and enjoying Ask Me. It runs on your questions, which I appreciate greatly. I’m looking forward to a full mailbox!

Ask Me publishes on the second and fourth Sundays of each month. Paula Lloyd is a freelance writer. Send questions to askpaulalloyd@yahoo.com or by mail to Paula Lloyd, c/o The Fresno Bee Newsroom, 1626 E St., Fresno CA 93786. Please include your name, city of residence and a phone number.

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