1019 San Pablo Ave. (near Buchanan Street), Albany
You might do a double-take when you spot the large red-and-white sign atop Syma’s Grill that proclaims Mexican and Persian food. “What is this?” you wonder. “Two separate restaurants sharing one sign? Perhaps a new kind of fusion cuisine?” Neither.
Sima Dehestani, who was born and raised in Iran and came to love cooking Mexican food, offers a generous array of dishes from both cultures (on separate menu pages) at her cozy spot on San Pablo Avenue in Albany. Does it make for an odd combination of cuisines?
“Not really,” she said. “There are many parallels. We always eat Salad Shirazi (Persian cucumber, tomato, onion, lime juice and mint) and Mexican food has pico de gallo (with tomato, onion, lime juice and cilantro). We eat yogurt with everything, they do it with sour cream. For meat, they have carne asada, we have kebabs. And both meals always feature rice (even though they’re different kinds).”
“Many students who live across the street in University Village are my customers,” Dehestani said. “There’s one couple, she is Persian, he is Mexican. The first time they came in, they said, ‘What a wonderful combination.’ She always orders Mexican, and he orders Persian, but of course they share.”
For diners unfamiliar with Persian food, Dehestani sets up chafing dishes featuring her specialties, such as her hearty lamb shank stew (abgoosht), Cornish hen in sour cherry sauce (albaloo polo), hearty bean and noodle soup (ash-e-reshteh) and is happy to provide samples to taste. Although she is thrilled when people want to try new-to-them Persian dishes, she still wants them to enjoy her Mexican dishes too, especially her enchiladas in creamy tequila sauce, rojo pozole, chile relleno burrito and mole enchiladas.
Last year, when the pandemic led to an 80% loss of income for Syma’s Grill, Dehestani decided to add a Middle Eastern food store at Syma’s, to cater to shoppers who appreciate the ingredients in Persian, Turkish, Israeli and other cuisines. Dehestani is not afraid of challenges, “When I fall down, I just get up again and start walking.” The story of her life proves it takes more than a global pandemic to discourage this resilient and creative woman.
Dehestani was born and raised in Iran. In 1981, at the age of 19, she escaped from the country illegally with her 2-year-old daughter, whom she carried while walking on foot for days to cross the border into Pakistan to meet her then-husband. “We were just like those immigrants you see on the news now, coming from Mexico or Guatemala,” she said.
The family made it to Portugal, then Italy, where they wanted to stay. But after being caught by the police without papers, they were forced to take refuge for four months in the United Nations compound, while waiting for a chance to emigrate to Canada, which didn’t materialize. When the U.S. finally opened its doors, they needed a sponsor. Eventually, they found an Iranian couple in Los Angeles, who did business with her brother-in-law in Iran and was willing to become the family’s sponsors.
The Iranian couple owned a large factory that made underwear (which they sold to the likes of Victoria’s Secret, Frederick’s of Hollywood and Costco.) They gave Dehestani an office job, and welcomed her like a daughter into their home and family, even though they were Jewish, and she was not. The experience of staying in a kosher home was enlightening.
“I realized it is a very healthy way to eat,” said Dehestani, “like halal.”
She was grateful for their support. “They were like parents to me, helped me find an apartment in L.A. and kept checking in to see that I was okay.” She is still in touch with the family and carries many kosher imports from Israel in their honor.
In 1986, after living in L.A. for four years, her brother, who lived in Oakland, heard that Cafe Durant, an Iranian-owned restaurant in Berkeley near his car stereo business, was for sale.
Dehestani was ready for a new challenge.
The cafe’s owner trained her in three months. Back then, the cafe was only open half-days and specialized in American breakfasts. After working there for two years, Dehestani had a revelation. She credits one of the staff members, Lupe, a great cook who always prepared Mexican food for staff meals, for inspiring her to expand the menu and the restaurant’s hours. She loved Lupe’s three salsas, her mole, chilaquiles and machaca, among many other dishes. Lupe was happy to share her recipes and Dehestani was an avid student. (Lupe still comes by Syma’s Grill occasionally to say hi and check on her Mexican dishes).
After 15 years at the restaurant, she left to take on new challenges.
“You have to be enterprising to survive,” said Dehestani. “The big hole in my life was education.”
She enrolled in the College of Alameda to get her GED, then Contra Costa College for a biotechnology certificate. And while working at Bio-Rad Laboratories, she attended Cal State University, East Bay and earned a bachelor’s in science. But after nine years as a production chemist in a Bio-Rad Lab, Dehestani found she missed the business environment and interacting with people. So the ever-resourceful woman earned her real estate license as well as certificates as a phlebotomist and EKG technician.
In 2019, while doing her real estate work on the weekends, she noticed that Christopher’s Nothing Fancy Cafe (established by Christopher Cheung in 1988) on San Pablo was for sale. She had eaten there before and discovered that for the last 22 years, it was owned and run by Ali Mirzai, who also happened to be Persian. She took over from Mirzai, making his beloved Mexican dishes and adding the ones she had learned from Lupe.
Dehestani planned that after one year in business, she would add Persian dishes to the menu. Her projected date was March 2020. We all know what happened that month. Although she offered curbside takeout, many people stopped coming.
“What can I do to bring more revenue in?” she wondered. “I realized people were not going to restaurants, just going to markets.” She had fond memories of Zand’s Market on Solano Avenue, run by Monier Attar, another Iranian immigrant. “I loved that place and was brokenhearted when it closed.” Inspired by Zand’s, she decided to add a market.
The new market at Syma’s Grill carries foods that can provide an ersatz trip around the world. A small sampling: date syrup, couscous, Kosher falafel and kibbeh from Israel, frozen simit bread and kunefe (sweet cheese pastry) from Turkey, tahina from Lebanon, basmati rice from India and Pakistan, frozen molokhia leaves from Egypt, Bulgarian cheese, Palestinian olive oil.
There is also a wall of spices and assorted Persian foodstuffs from the well-known company Sadaf. For dessert, a wide selection of baklava and halvah, plus Persian ice creams in tempting flavors like pomegranate, saffron and rose.
Dehestani also spruced up the patio behind the restaurant, with heaters, lights and flowers. There’s plenty of parking in the rear lot as well.
On a recent Tuesday, house painter Jose Ferreyra came in for the second day in a row to order Mexican food (a chile relleno burrito and a beef taco). While paying at the counter, he noticed the pan of Syrian baklava bursting with pistachio nuggets, added one to his order and took it outside to wait. All of a sudden, he rushed back in and said regarding the sweet, “That was amazing! I’ll take 10 more (I have a large family).”
Seeing this, Dehestani tells of the Mexican family who had lunch on her patio the day before. Besides their order of assorted tacos, they tried the Persian Salad Shirazi and the Ash-E-reshteh soup. The mother told her after the meal, “The Mexican food was very good, but I loved the Persian food; next time I will just order the Persian salad and soup.”
“That makes my day,” said Dehestani. “It’s not about making a lot of money. All I want is people to be happy with their food, and especially for them to try the ash-e-reshteh soup (which can be vegan or vegetarian). It’s minty and garlicky and so full of herbs, it’s the classic Persian dish.”
Syma’s Grill is open noon to 9 p.m., Monday through Saturday; 5-9 p.m., Sunday.