Thank God dinning is not one of the illegal activities monitored by the “morality police” in Iran. Maybe that is why one of the my favorite pastimes was to enjoy the variety of food options available. Great kababs, fresh bread and doogh, with a good ghalyoon in a outdoor cafe up at Darband accompanied by the peaceful experience of listening to the steady flow of the stream late at night.
And kalleh pacheh early mornings before heading for a ski weekend in Shemshak. Grabbing some laboo from a street vendor on a cold winter night heading back from high school. And also experimenting with the limited number of farangi restaurants – Mexican, Indian, Chinese and a few others.
Fast forward a few years and a few thousand kilometers away, in the U.S.A.
Food in the U.S. is pretty big, but it has a different culture. Forget about fast food and extra value meals, providing the necessary — actually most often, unnecessary — calories. I am talking about the different ethnic groups who have brought their food alongside with other parts of their culture to this continent.
As a newcomer I was fascinated by the number of different choices available. There wasn't enough time to try them all out! I thought I finally understood what the U.S. was all about. After all, Columbus braved all the obstacles to discovering the U.S. just to find a closer route to all those spices. Basically saying: “This slab of beef is too bland, let's get on a boat, risk our lives sailing the vast stormy ocean, go somewhere no one has ever gone before so that we can grind some fresh black pepper on it!”
But there is no escaping it, after a while you always go back to your roots.
I needed ghormeh sabzi. The chelo kabab level in my blood had dropped to dangerous levels and I felt a seizure coming on.
Enter the Iranian — or to be precise, Persian — restaurant. My quest for finding the greatest Iranian restaurant started. Somewhere in the same level of the Indian restaurant I keep going back to because of the food, or the Vietnamese place I recommend to all my friends. Somewhere with service as good as the little French hole in the wall. A dinning experience as authentic to its roots as that Chinese dim sum place. Or simply like the Greek diner I frequent only because the manager makes a personal effort to welcome each and every costumer whenever he can.
That quest still continues.
At first I wondered why Iranian food is not bigger deal here. The food is not too spicy, which can scare away less adventurous palates, yet it is full of flavor. No weird ingredients like frogs legs or raw fish. It's healthy too, quite a lot of vegetables and herbs and not that much meat and fat. Why hasn't it picked up?
The answer was not to hard to find.
It seems Iranian restaurant owners in the U.S. run their business with the same skill and efficiency as their counterparts in Iran. This just doesn't work here. Sometimes I want to grab the managers and drag them to a crash course on customer service! I have never had experiences similar to the ones I have had in Iranian restaurants.
Vacuuming the restaurant is a not-so-subtle gesture to your customers to “get the hell out of this place, I'm closing down.” Turning off the lights and shutting down the music, all while the waiter is standing with the bill a few feet from the table staring at you. Hearing form the waiter, 45 minutes after you have ordered, that the meal you wanted from the menu is not available that night. Almost chocking on your meal, because of the lack of water while your lovely waiter is flirting for 20 minutes with the handsome dude in the next table. And my favorite: rewarming kabab koobideh in a microwave! The list goes on and on.
I don't like to nag. The food industry is very competitive and I don't want Iranian restaurants to go out of business. Where else can I find chelo kabab soltani with somagh? But I also want to enjoy the dinning experience too. I don't want to be scolded by the manager because half of my reserved party didn't show up. I doubt a non-Iranian will ever return after experiencing what I've been through. But the managers know we are hooked, like junkies.
Personally I've entered a 12-step rehabilitation program at my local community center to kick my addiction. “Hi. My name is Mahmood and I am addicted to Iranian food”. The first thing they want you to do is stop the abusive relationship, so I haven't gone back to any of the restaurants I mentioned.
But I have a confession to make. I just found a new Iranian place. The manager was friendly and greeted us graciously, the food is excellent and I feel welcomed. The problem is that it's about three hours form where I live. Sadly, I ran out of places to go in my own town.