Turkish delight

A Diné finds herself happily running a Turkish restaurant in San Fran

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

WINDOW ROCK, June 19, 2012

Text size: A A A

W orking for the Navajo Times, one meets all kinds of interesting Diné doing interesting things all over the world.

Nevertheless, there are always surprises ... like finding a Navajo running a fine Mediterranean restaurant on San Francisco's trendy Potrero Hill.

For Sherry Wilson, it was a combination of determination, serendipity, and a devil-may-care adventurousness that led her far from her hometown of St. Michaels, Ariz., and into a business in which she had absolutely no training or experience.

It all started three years ago. A social worker starting to burn out, Wilson had just turned 40 and was ready for a change. Her partner, Irfan Yalçin, was a Kurdish immigrant from Turkey who had just lost his job waiting tables on a cruise ship.

The pair had saved up some money, and when a Chinese restaurant on "P-Hill" went under, they decided to make an offer.

"Neither of us had owned a business before," said Wilson, who is Tódích'íi'nii (Bitter Water Clan) born for Maricopa.

But Yalçin had learned the restaurant business from the coffee grounds up, and felt confident he could do it. As for Wilson, she's never been known to run from a grand adventure.

It's a trait she comes by naturally. Cut to two generations ago, same Bay Area: Wilson's grandfather was working the shipping docks alongside Mexican co-workers.

Immigration came along and shipped them all back to Mexico ... including Wilson's gramps, a full-blooded Navajo. Eventually the government realized the mistake, but by then Cheii didn't want to leave.

"He actually loved it down there," Wilson said. "His dad had to send for him. He said, 'You've got a wife, you've got a kid, you gotta come home!'"

It's a good thing, because Wilson's Cheii ended up having several more children after he returned to the States, including her own mother.

There's another San Francisco connection on the other side of her family. Swept up in the Native Rights Movement of the early 1970s, Wilson's father briefly moved the whole family to Oakland, Calif., so he could take part in the occupation of Alcatraz. Wilson was too young to take much interest in the protest, but "I remember the fog and the green hills," she said.

The memory drew her back for a trip with her grandmother when she was 18 or 19. That's when she decided she would one day call the Bay Area home.

After graduating from high school, she attended Arizona State University for "a smidge," then bounced around a while before, at age 27, moving to the place that had beckoned her all her life.

Making dreams real

Wilson finished a degree in English at San Francisco State University and worked her way into a social work position serving the city's large Native American community, and that's where she was when she met Yalçin and the idea for Pera crystallized.

"It was definitely a leap of faith," she said with a laugh.

At first, things didn't seem to be going their way. The pair had hoped to recoup some of the cost of the building by selling the huge woks the Chinese restaurant had left behind.

That's when they learned a little-known fact of Chinese culture.

"The Chinese are very superstitious about their woks," Wilson said. "Nobody would buy a used one. Nobody. We ended up paying a guy $400 to destroy them."

The floor space had a lot of dividers and dead space. Wilson and Yalçin decided to clear everything out and put in as many tables as could fit.

"The more tables you have, the more money you can make, right?" Wilson asked rhetorically.

Wrong. Wilson's social work skills were soon required as the new entrepreneurs learned that running a restaurant is one-fourth food and three-quarters psychology.

"People would walk by and look in the window, and there were all these empty tables," Wilson recalled. "They assumed the food wasn't good."

The new owners quickly adapted, filling some of the space with a long wine bar and removing most of the tables.

"As soon as people saw a line out the door, we started to take off," Wilson said. "San Franciscans don't mind waiting in line for good food. They'll wait an hour and a half for breakfast."

Another stroke of serendipity came when it was time to hire a chef.

"There are a lot of people selling Turkish food in the Bay Area, but most of it is like fast food," Wilson said. "It really isn't very good.

"Finally this guy walks in. It's like the eleventh hour. He had just moved from Turkey. We didn't even taste the food, that's how desperate we were. We just hired him. Sure enough, this guy could cook! It was amazing."

Then Yalçin brought his brother and a cousin to the restaurant and hired them as waiters. Had they planned it, it would have been a stroke of genius.

"Then people were like, 'Oh, it's a family restaurant!'" Wilson recalled. "People love family restaurants."

Crossroads cuisine

Once you get folks in the door, of course, it's all about the food. From the diner reviews posted online, it's apparent that Pera's menu is a hit, even with ever-so-jaded San Franciscan palates.

Food, claims Wilson, is nobody's business like the Turks.

Because Turkey is the crossroads of the world's classic trade routes, the Turks encountered the best flavors of Asia, Europe and Africa, and made them their own.

"They swept through all the cuisines and spread it into their own Turkish hypercuisine," Wilson explained.

On Pera's menu you will find Middle Eastern-style hummus, Greek-style spanakopita and dolmades, and (making Wilson feel right at home) lots of grass-fed lamb.

You will not find fry bread.

"I don't even know how to make it," Wilson confessed.

She does, however, purchase wines from some of the California tribes' wineries, which Wilson says are excellent.

"The wine list is the only Native thing about the restaurant," she said, "besides me."

You might say the hospitality is more casual Navajo than formal Turkish. Wilson's social work experience kicks in when she talks to her customers, drawing out their stories.

Whether it's Carlos Santana, Barry Bonds' defense attorney, or the errant Tennessean who "just wanted to look at the wood on the bar," Wilson greets as many people personally as she can.

"Everybody has a story," she said. "But you knew that."

Nonetheless, this happily expatriated Diné does occasionally miss home.

"There are those days," she sighed, "when you just want to go to Grandma's and barbecue something."

So if you happen to be in San Francisco, Wilson invites you come to Pera. She would like nothing more than to hear a friendly "Yá'át'ééh" and feel a gentle Navajo-style handshake, and see what you think of her grass-fed lamb.

Information, including where the name "Pera" comes from: www.perasf.com

Back to top ^