Saturday, March 28, 1998

Mideast Meets Midwest

Close your eyes and jab at the center of a map of the US, and you'll likely as not hit Omaha.  Certainly one of the spiritual capitals of the mythical midwest, it is the home of Warren Buffet, the Strategic Air Command and Boy's Town.  Beef is the bread and butter of most meals, and its not uncommon to get fries, mashed potatoes and baked potatoes served as sides together. As you leave the city you can't help but notice that the land is flat, the speed limit is 75 and every third billboard has the word "heartland" somewhere on it.  You don't get much more American than this. And that's why its all the more astounding to walk down the brick paved streets in the Old Market area of town, a stretch of trendy shops and restaurants, and come across Ahmad's Persian Cuisine.

A tiny place located near the end of the block, Ahmad's sports 10 tables, more or less, set amid slate blue walls.  Persian tapestries and pictures adorn the walls, while middle eastern fabrics lay under glass on the tables.  A hookah pipe sitting on the bar reaches nearly to the ceiling, and the menus are framed in intricate paper that could have been copied from the design of some carpet in the Shah's palace.

Holding forth, running here and there with a pot of sweet Persian tea, is Ahmad Nazar.  Ahmad was a dentist in Iran in the old days before the Ayatollah.  In order to perfect his skills, he journeyed to America, to, of all places, Creighton University in Omaha.  There, he was basically forced to start over, as US schools are notoriously picky about accepting foreign credentials as legitimate university credit.

"I couldn't see sitting in a classroom, next to some guy who knew nothing, and me already in practice.  It was a waste of my time," he says.  "And anyway, in Iran, the pace was different.  There, I saw 5, maybe 10 patients a day.  Here, you were expected to see that many an hour."  For these reasons and others, Ahmad began to reconsider his plans.

Not sure exactly which way to head, he shifted his major at Creighton to Business Administration.  As with many students, he went to classes during the day, and waited tables at night.  The restaurant  where he worked was one of the better clubs in Omaha, and Ahmad was good at what he did.  Its not a very big
town... 700,000 or so... and so his customers became regulars and supporters.  They encouraged him to take a stab on his own.  He started to plan.  One year he worked seven days a week, never having a date, banking every cent.  And then, seven years ago, he took the plunge.

Taking his savings, he cast about for a place.  In the Old Market, he came across a restaurant that was in it's third incarnation, first as a fast food place, then as a Greek taverna  and finally as "A Taste of Chicago."  But hot dogs weren't what the upscale crowd wanted, and so business wasn't flourishing.  Ahmad talked himself to the front of the line of potential buyers, and made the deal.

A naturally outgoing fellow, the business proved to be the perfect compliment to his personality.  Through hard work and long hours, he began to build a loyal following, including referrals from hotels and airlines.  He served all the traditional middle eastern specialties, like falafel and bab-ga-nooj.  He made his hummos with lots of fresh lime, and served it  with creamy lavosh bread.  His specialties included Kabob Kudideh, or grilled skewers of ground lamb and beef marinated in onions and spices, and served with a charred tomato
over yellow rice.

"The Persian spices are a little different from the rest of the middle east," he explained.  "King Alexander brought them to the area.  And like the Indians and Lebanese, we use curries, garlic, ginger, and saffron.  But we also use sumac, which a professor who came in told me was also used by Native Americans
as a tea."  And the bananas that were on the side of the plate?  "Oh, my mother suggested that when she came over to visit.  It's a little something sweet after all the spices.  After all, that kind of invention is what owning your own restaurant is all about."

Mom went back to Iran.  But Ahmad's older brother, formerly a member of the Shah's secret police, came over four years ago to help with the cooking.  In the beginning, Ahmad's Italian wife from Ames, Iowa, who is a professor of Fine Arts at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, helped out.  But even with family involvement, it is clearly his baby, as much so as his smiling seven year old daughter, Paloma.

And how does it feel to be an Iranian in the middle of Omaha?  Its cultural improvisation at its best.  The people:  "This is a great place.  The people are friendly, and we have a small Middle Eastern community with some engineers from the university.  In fact, we're celebrating Norez, the Persian New Year, at the Cornhusker Hotel this week."  The supplies: "I travel to Chicago about once a month, Los Angeles once a year, and New York twice a year to get spices and things that I can't get here."  The help: "The lavosh bread is made fresh by a Mexican women who makes tortillas.  I just have to remind her to only use white flower, and no cornmeal."

When he got his degree in business, Ahmad gave himself a ten year goal:  make it, or go back to Iran.  It took eleven, but he can be forgiven for those 365 days.  For its an American dream played out by an Iranian dentist married to an Italian professor from Iowa that takes place in Omaha.   And besides, to hear him
tell it, he's not that far off from his original career.  "As a dentist," he says, "I used to fix peoples mouths.  Now I feed them.  And this way, they walk away happy."


Marc Wollin of Bedford had pizza, pasta and Persian when in Omaha, but never got a steak.  His column appears weekly in The Record Review.