30 September 2003
Washington Acquires a Taste for Persian Cuisine
Restaurants combine Persian traditions with American style
By Phyllis Mcintosh
Washington -- On a Sunday evening along a busy street in Bethesda, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C., customers are lined up nearly out the door of a fast food restaurant waiting to order dinner. Many leave with bags of food to take home. Inside, most of the 40 seats are occupied by diners of all ages, including teenagers and families with young children.
A typical American scene, except that the food is not pizza, fried chicken, or hamburgers but freshly grilled kabobs served over Basmati rice or flatbread baked on the premises. The restaurant is Moby Dick's House of Kabobs, named for a Teheran restaurant popular with young Iranians 25 or 30 years ago. With six locations in the Washington metropolitan area and two or three more scheduled to open in the next two years, Moby Dick's is a testament to the growing popularity of Persian food in the United States.
The founder of the restaurant chain is Mike Daryoush, an Iranian who came to the United States in 1975 and earned a degree in electrical engineering from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Having supported himself by working in restaurants while in college, Daryoush discovered that that he liked the restaurant business better than engineering. In 1987, he opened a small sandwich shop on the site of the current Moby Dick's in Bethesda, serving a few Middle Eastern dishes and standard American fare such as hamburgers and roast beef sandwiches.
"After a year and a half, to be unique, I changed it to a Persian menu and added a clay oven to make bread," Daryoush says. "I had two purposes, to make a lifetime career and to support the Iranian culture. Through the stomach is a good way of reaching people."
Today, the menu includes salads and vegetarian items with American names like garden salad, Moby's melt, and veggie delight. But the heart of the menu is the kabobs of kubideh, chenjeh, barreh, and joojeh and combination platters with kabobs of several different meats. Lunch specials feature traditional Persian stews. The restaurant also offers homemade doogh along with soft drinks and juices.
Daryoush intentionally modeled Moby Dick's on fast-food restaurants, such as McDonald's, that are so popular in America. "I try to do it this way to serve more people and make it convenient and keep the cost down so people can have the food more often and with less trouble than sitting down and waiting for a waiter," Daryoush says. "Also, these days people don't have time, so faster service is important."
"Because we do volume [business], we can afford to spend more to give better quality," adds co-owner Mohammad Javan. He and Daryoush pride themselves on using only fresh ingredients. "We do not have freezers at all," says Javan. "When you freeze food, you lose some of the taste."
Daryoush and Javan have made a few accommodations to American tastes. The rice is less buttery than back home, Daryoush says, and instead of some spicier regional dishes, "we try to offer dishes that are more to everyone's taste."
Clearly, the formula is working. An American woman laden with bags of carryout food from Moby Dick's in Bethesda said she learned of the restaurant from neighbors, all non-Iranian, and now comes often because "my son loves the food." She adds, "Sometimes when I drive by with other boys in the car, one will say, ‘That's the best place. I hope my Mom lets us eat there tonight.'"
At some locations, such as in downtown Washington where Moby Dick's does a brisk lunchtime business, 90 to 95 percent of the customers are American, the owners estimate. At all six locations, the clientele is about 75 percent American. Buoyed by such success, Daryoush and Javan say their goal is to make Moby Dick's the first national fast food chain specializing in Persian food.
Moby Dick's may be unique, but there are many more traditional Persian restaurants in Washington and other American cities with a large Iranian population. Just up the street from Moby Dick's in Bethesda is the upscale Paradise Restaurant, opened by native Iranian Nasr Sateri in 1980 to "bring the flavor of the Persian and Afghan cultures to Washington, D.C." Paradise still offers both Persian and Afghan menu items and features lunch and dinner buffets -- popular among Americans -- to showcase a number of different dishes.
The main thoroughfare in another Washington suburb, Rockville, Maryland, is home to several Persian restaurants, delis and bakeries. One of the oldest establishments is Yekta supermarket and kabobi restaurant, owned and operated by the Dadras family since 1979. Kathy Dadras, who helps her mother and father in the store, says she has been seeing "more and more Americans" in recent years, some of them seeking ingredients for recipes in popular Persian cookbooks now on the market. She estimates that Americans account for 25 percent of the customers in both market and restaurant.
Mike Daryoush thinks that Persian food will continue to gain acceptance as one of the more popular ethnic cuisines in the United States. "Ten years ago you had to find people who had been overseas or had a friend who knew Persian food," he says. "But these days the population of Iranians in this country is growing. And this food is the new wave of taste for Americans. In the United States, people are not afraid of trying."
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)