If you’ve never tasted the ash reshteh from Saeed Pourkay’s pocket shop — a steam table operation lodged in the corner of a nondescript 18th Street pizza joint — run, don’t walk. Pourkay has said the restaurant-within-a-restaurant will remain open through January. Beyond then, he plans to return with a restaurant space all his own, but who knows what will happen.
On a visit to Taste of Persia a few months back, the food was just as good as when Pourkay debuted at the Union Square Holiday Market back in 2012. I remember my bewildered delight at tasting his ash reshteh for the first time at that market. It was a dish I’d only eaten in the kitchens of Persian friends on Long Island, and it was nourishing and exciting to see outside someone’s home.
Traditional Iranian cooking is layered, intricate, and labor-intensive: Pourkay’s ash reshteh involves five kinds of beans simmered to creamy compliance with two forms of caramelized onions (immersed in the stew, and fried as a topping), a tangle of herbs, broken splinters of noodles, and invigorating doses of cardamom and ginger. Pourkay’s fesenjan evokes home cooking no matter where you grew up: braised chicken, walnuts, and pomegranate molasses meld into a tangy, voluptuous gravy that could sustain you through the worst snowstorm or subway debacle. For $12, you get two homestyle dishes like these on a bed of rice packed into a plastic takeout container, which Pourkay anoints with a golden drizzle of saffron water.
Pourkay announced Taste of Persia’s closing on his Facebook page just after Christmas. Over the phone, he explained that the owners of the pizza shop, with whom he’s had a verbal rental agreement for nearly eight years, recently sold the business, and the new tenants want him out. “The new owners raised my rent a tiny amount but promised that they wanted me to stay,” Pourkay says. “They said they needed me, that everyone knows me and that I bring business to the pizza place.” This was in October. By mid-December, however, the building’s owner approached Pourkay and told him to start packing. Pourkay believes this was at the request of the new tenants. Later, he was offered an ultimatum: assume half of the pizza shop’s lease or leave. “They fooled me,” he says. “They had me crying for an hour.”
So here we are. Taste of Persia is closing, and I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to square the messages that writers like me give to entrepreneurs with the brutal realities of running a restaurant in New York today. I don’t know how to respond when every food-industry worker I’ve spoken with in years shares how burned-out they feel. I don’t know what you do when you’ve done everything right and it’s still not enough. Pourkay has to cook around the pizza shop’s schedule, often in the middle of the night. He usually works alone and never takes days off. For this and 100 square feet of retail space he now pays $900 in rent a week. He estimates opening a restaurant of his own would cost $50,000 to $60,000, which he doesn’t have. Multiple customers have offered to set up GoFundMe pages for him, as one did in 2017 after Taste of Persia suffered a fire. A miracle could happen. Maybe it will. He’d still need to start over.
When Taste of Persia opened in 2013, it wasn’t just good news for the city’s minuscule Persian restaurant scene; it felt like a throwback to the New York I grew up in, where of course there’s an Iranian steam table inside a slice joint in the Flatiron, because that’s what New York does. For those of us who have seen so many beloved restaurants shutter over the last decade, Taste of Persia was a rare tick in the win column.
“His story is very much this classic immigrant tale of loss and resilience,” says New York Times Hungry City restaurant critic Ligaya Mishan. “Thematically, that’s so resonant for New York City. You go there and you root for him: somebody who’s made a space for himself that didn’t exist before, who builds something out of nothing.” I asked Mishan what stands out to her about Taste of Persia, since she reviewed it in 2013. “To have this person make the food he loves without filter or compromise, the way he wanted to make it — that’s another New York thing.” She adds, “People who do things the way they want to do them, and you either like it or come to grudgingly accept it — we’re running out of those characters.”
I don’t know where we go from here. We can push for policy changes like commercial rent control, retail vacancy taxes, or eliminating the cap on street vendor permits. None of these reforms would help Pourkay. In our guts, we all know that it keeps getting harder to run a business like his. At some point, that implicit instinct becomes explicit acceptance. There are always more banks to snatch up empty storefronts. A salad chain with a mobile app is now worth $1.6 billion and plans to expand from 100 stores, to 1,000.
For his part, Pourkay told me he’s excited for some time off. Once Taste of Persia closes, he plans to spend four to six weeks in Iran to rest and recuperate. Then, he’s committed to finding a new retail space, a place of his own where he can flex his creative muscle. “I need a place where I can do my best,” he says.
I hope he can. But I don’t know if the city that he returns to will deserve him.