At Syma’s Grill in Albany, Sima Dehestani recaptures blissful flavors from a Persian childhood
By Anna Mindess | Photos by Shannon Kelli
The enticing aromas of saffron and rose water wafting through an open kitchen window attracted a six-year-old growing up in a countryside town outside of Tehran. Sima Dehestani recalls how she played “like a happy puppy” in the yard near that kitchen window and tried to look in to see what was cooking. But when she asked to come inside to see what was exuding the irresistible scents of cumin and orange blossom, her mother and aunt shooed her away.
“When you are a kid in my culture, you are not welcome to go into the kitchen of the adults because they believe kids will touch things,” Dehestani says on a recent morning while working in her Albany restaurant kitchen. “I always wondered what they were making and how.”
If the little girl couldn’t cook, she could eat. “I loved eating more than anything,” Dehestani says, “and I was such a big eater and snacker that my mom had to stop me.”
For example, little Sima knew her mother always had Turkish coffee in the afternoons. She would wait patiently, and when her mother was done with her coffee and had turned her back, the child would sneakily run her finger around the bottom of the cup to lick up the tasty sugar and coffee residues.
A Long Walk to Her Own Kitchen
When Dehestani was finally old enough to be allowed into the kitchen, major life events got in the way of learning her mother’s recipes and techniques. Married at age 15, she had a baby at 17, but even then, she was not expected to cook as her mother and mother-in-law brought food every day while the young mother tried to finish her schooling. Then, in 1981, at the age of 19, Dehestani left Iran (illegally) to meet up with her (then) husband, who was waiting in Pakistan. She walked for several days carrying her two-year-old daughter, Sara. The family made their way to Portugal but couldn’t stay because they didn’t have the proper papers, and the same proved true in Italy, where the police discovered their false papers and gave them 24 hours to leave. Luckily, they were able to take refuge in a United Nations compound for several months, and eventually they were matched with an Iranian family in Southern California, which was willing to sponsor them.
Living in an apartment building in the Reseda neighborhood of Los Angeles, Dehestani met a neighbor who was also from Iran. The older woman lived alone and was happy to show her new, young friend how to cook some classic Persian dishes. Dehestani’s food memories reawakened, prompting her to call her mother in Iran to get details on her personal versions of childhood favorites. More than a decade later, she would also travel back to Iran and stand side by side with her mother to receive the cooking lessons she had dreamed of since childhood.
After four years in Los Angeles, the family came to the Bay Area when Dehestani’s brother (who was living in Oakland) offered to connect her to the Iranian owner of Berkeley’s Café Durant, who was intending to sell. After three months of training, Dehastani took over the café and continued serving the café’s hearty American breakfasts to the nearby Cal campus community.
A breakfast-only eatery struck Dehastani as a missed opportunity, but the thought brought an epiphany one day as the Café Durant staff was enjoying a Mexican meal cooked by employee Lupe Chavez. “This food would also please Café Durant diners,” Dehestani realized, and so she became Chavez’s student, learning how to make salsas, moles, chilaquiles, and many other dishes. The community welcomed the restaurant’s expanded menu and hours. “I had the idea to also add Persian dishes,” she says, “but I didn’t have the confidence at that time.”
After 15 years at Café Durant, Dehestani found herself newly single and ready for fresh challenges. Her education had been cut short by her flight from Iran, but now she was able to go back to school to earn her GED. With that in hand, she went on for a certificate in biotechnology and a BA in science.
Nine years into a job as a production chemist, Dehestani realized she felt isolated in the lab. Returning to school, she earned certificates in phlebotomy and EKG technology, and she also got a license to sell real estate. It was the latter that proved to be the game changer.
Dehestani had been a customer at Christopher’s Nothing Fancy Café—a popular Mexican restaurant in Albany established by Christopher Cheung in 1988—but now she learned that it was up for sale, and she also found that the current owner, Ali Mirzai, was Persian. When she took over in 2019, she kept the café’s longstanding Mexican dishes and added some of Chavez’s (which her former employee checks on occasionally when she drops in to say hello). Dehestani also started thinking about whether she might finally offer her beloved Persian food.
Reclaiming Her Childhood Cuisine
Within a year of taking over from Mirzai, Dehestani felt ready to launch a full set of Persian dishes as a companion to the Mexican menu. She also changed the café’s name to Syma’s Persian and Mexican Grill, and although she spells her own first name with an “i,” she took a friend’s suggestion and swapped in a “y” to give Syma’s a special flair.
She planned to introduce the Persian menu in March 2020, but the Covid pandemic introduced its disruptive wrinkle. Never a quitter, Dehestani was undaunted. Among the Persian dishes she added to the menu were ash-e-reshteh, a bean and noodle soup; abgoosht, a lamb shank stew; and albaloo polo, saffron rice cooked with cherry sauce served with roast Cornish hen. She shifted to takeout orders and added comfortable outdoor seating on her back patio.
She also added a small market and continues to carry a wide range of products from around the globe including California grape leaves; Bulgarian ratatouille; Lebanese tahina; several varieties of rice from India and Pakistan; Palestinian olive oil, zaatar, pickled cucumbers, and hot chile peppers; Israeli pickled eggplant, date syrup, fruit nectars, and falafel; Turkish dried black olives, dried figs, and Turkish delight; Golnazar’s Persian-inspired ice creams in tempting flavors like Saffron Pistachio, Pomegranate Chocolate, Double Date Delite, and Creamy Rose; Persian sangak (a flatbread baked on a bed or river stones); and a variety of spices. Dehestani says she’ll sell (or try to locate) any Persian ingredient her customers ask for, including any used in the recipes on the following pages.
Business has been growing steadily since 2020, with rising demand for catering, including parties hosted at the café on Sundays. Visibility increased earlier this year, when Syma’s was featured on KQED’s Check, Please! Bay Area, and Dehestani has noticed a new boost of interest in her Persian cuisine. She knows her mother would be very proud. ♦
Syma’s Mexican Grill & Persian Cuisine
1019 San Pablo Ave Ste 1021, Albany
510.526.1185 | symasgrill.com
Anna Mindess writes on food, culture, and travel for numerous publications. She also works as an American Sign Language interpreter. Follow her on Instagram @annamindess and find her stories at annamindess.contently.com.
Shannon Kelli’s editorial and commercial photography studio in Berkeley specializes in still and moving pictures that tell a unique visual story about the person, product, brand, or business they represent. shannonkelli.com