Persian Delight

by Christie Chisholm, LocalFlavor Magazine, November 2011

Pars Cuisine is a sort of culinary Persian and Mediterranean mecca, an oasis of lamb-laced moussaka and spiced falafel in the middle of the American Southwest. Although it’s unassuming from the street, sitting snuggly at the end of a strip mall, a walk through its front doors is a revelation. Emerald-green, satiny striped curtains sift light from a wall of windows onto high-backed, ornately carved wooden chairs and crisp, white tablecloths. In the center of the dining room, cushioned floor seating surrounds a tall, murmuring fountain. Giant swathes of fabric drape from the ceiling and gather in the center, aiding in the sense that one is encompassed at all times by soft, nearly ethereal textiles. Go at the right time and find belly dancers undulating in the aisles. Wander onto the outdoor patio and partake in fruit-, molasses- or honey-imbued tobacco from towering hookahs.

Like any journey of self-discovery, though, Pars didn’t start out knowing exactly what it was. In fact, when Pars opened 27 years ago, it didn’t offer any Persian or Mediterranean dishes. Instead, it served Mexican.

Back then it was called Pars Diner (“Pars,” by the way, means “Persian” in Farsi) and it ran out of a food court in Montgomery Plaza, next to Del Norte High School. Husband-and-wife team Mohammad and Shahnaz Tafti opened the restaurant in 1984 with a third partner. The reasoning behind serving Mexican food was simple—the Taftis’ partner knew how to make it. The couple’s motive for opening the restaurant was also simple. Shahnaz’ father had owned a restaurant. Although she had never seen it (the restaurant was in India), she grew up hearing him talk about the business. When she and Mohammad found themselves in Albuquerque in need of second jobs, her first instinct was to open a restaurant, too. “At that time,” says Mohammad, “it was a matter of survival.”

With Mohammad teaching physical education at Our Lady of Fatima School and St. Charles Borromeo School and Shahnaz working as a specialist at SED Medical Laboratories, the two alternated shifts to keep Pars going. After a couple years, their partner dropped out. Slowly, Pars transformed. The business moved to a space above the food court and added some Greek items to the menu. Since it was right next to a high school, the Taftis also offered pizza. Eventually, they started serving one Persian item a week. 

In the midst of Pars’ evolution, other things changed. Another reason the Taftis chose to serve Mexican food in the beginning was because, at the time, neither of them were cooks. Shahnaz learned to cook when Pars opened and has since become the creative force behind the restaurant’s menu (Mohammad runs the front-of-house operations). Despite growing up in Iran and having a father with a restaurant, she wasn’t taught how to make Persian food until she lived in Albuquerque. She learned from a Persian friend about her mother’s age. “I started to pay attention to how she cooked,” she says. “If I had a question, I would call her.”

Shahnaz fell in love with the art of cooking and baking, she says, especially figuring out how to make something. “When you’re interested in cooking, it doesn’t matter where you’re from,” she adds, referencing the fact that she enjoys working with other ethnic cuisines as well.

After 16 years in and above a food court, Pars moved to its current location at The !25 (a development off I-25 and Jefferson, close to the Century Rio theater complex) in 2001. The restaurant quadrupled in size, from 1,000 square feet to nearly 4,000. It was then that Pars found itself. Shahnaz crafted a menu made entirely of Persian and Mediterranean dishes—and a large one, at that, offering more than 100 items. Las Vegas hotel decorator Susan Kirkpatrick designed the restaurant’s lush, exotic interior as a favor. The Taftis hired belly dancers. Shahnaz quit her other job, and soon Mohammad followed suit. They renamed the business Pars Cuisine.

Pars’ new incarnation became an Albuquerque jewel, a place that serves authentic ethnic cuisine in a lavish yet somehow affordable setting. Perhaps some of its most unique dishes come in the form of Persian stews, such as the fesenjoon—sautéed walnuts in pomegranate sauce served with chicken and basmati rice (a vegetarian version is also available)—or the ghymeh—sautéed beef and split yellow peas cooked in tomato sauce and topped with shoestring potatoes. A customer favorite, says Mohammad, is the Mediterranean souvlaki—marinated chicken breast or lamb skewered and broiled over an open flame. Vegetarians have plenty of options on the menu as well, due in part to the fact that Shahnaz is vegetarian and has been since she was 10. She makes the carnivorous dishes by testing what she can—the sauce and non-meat elements—and getting others to judge the meat. With five other cooks who now work at Pars, there’s usually someone to get the tasting job done. 

The “vegetarian specialty” embodies the best of what Pars has to offer herbivores, with spanakopita (spinach pie), hummus, the tenderest falafel this side of the Caspian Sea, dolmas, tabouli, Greek salad, pita bread and an assortment of homemade sauces. Some of Mohammad’s favorite vegetarian items are the house rice specialities, which change daily. “She makes the best rice,” he says, “with imported saffron. She’ll add cherries or barberries.”

The differences between the Persian and Mediterranean sides of Pars’ menu are subtle. Primarily, says Shahnaz, “Persian and Mediterranean are the same.” Mohammad offers gyros as an example. “In Iran they’re called Turkish kababs,” he says, adding that many other dishes also carry over from one cuisine to the next, such as shish kababs, souvlaki, dolmas and baklava. 

Baklava serves as model of how the cuisines differ, though. Both Persian and Mediterranean cuisines have their own versions of baklava, Mohammad says. “The Persian version uses rosewater and pistachios,” he says, while “the Greek uses walnuts and cinnamon.” Pars offers both kinds on its menu.

The main variations in cuisines comes in the form of spices, says Shahnaz. “In our country, there’s a lot of saffron, cinnamon and cumin,” she says. “They use rosewater for desserts instead of vanilla.”

Shahnaz adds that the way she cooks and serves her food at Pars is the exact way she does it at home, and the way most Persian families do it. “It’s like it’s from your own kitchen,” she says. Mohammad says the only exception comes in the form of heat. “Some items are for New Mexico tastes. They’re spicier. But not like Indian heat,” he adds, laughing.

After nearly three decades in the restaurant business, Mohammad says his favorite part is still talking to customers. He’s become the face of Pars (“It’s a good thing and a bad thing,” he says, referencing the fact that customers are used to seeing him there and don’t like it when he’s absent) and acts as its information hub. “When people are interested in the culture and they come and ask questions, I appreciate it,” he says. “That makes me happy.”