If your dining experience at Ahmad’s Persian Cuisine feels less than formal, know that vibe is exactly what Ahmad Nazar intended when opening his Old Market restaurant 24 years ago.
Nazar came to the United States from his native Iran to study business with plans of returning to his homeland after graduating. However, while he was in Omaha attending Creighton University, the Iranian Revolution transformed his country. Though he still goes back to Iran every five or six years, he said it is not the Iran he grew up in.
At 2 p.m. on a recent Friday afternoon, Ahmad’s should be closing its doors. Lunchtime is supposed to be over. Yet people still file in to sit in the quaint restaurant at 10th and Howard Streets. Nazar greets everyone with a smile and comes out to speak with each of his diners. Some are return customers who he knows by name.
An Indian couple asks Nazar to explain some of the dishes on his lunch menu, which he is glad to do. Seated near the counter are two young women and a little girl. One of the women is heavily inked and, upon receiving her lunch, yells back into the kitchen, “I love you guys!” Later, after the three have finished their lunch and ordered Turkish coffee, the woman implores the little girl to give Nazar a hug, which after some more prodding, she does.
When asked if it is common for guests to keep filing in even though he’s supposed to be closing to get ready for his dinner crowd, Nazar said he wouldn’t think of turning anyone away. He has customers that come in from all over the metro area and beyond.
“It’s not my place to turn anyone away, it gives me great pleasure sharing my food with others,” he says.
Sharing his dishes with friends—that’s how Nazar started cooking. When he was a student, friends would come and he got in the habit of cooking for them. He says it was too expensive to go out to eat. Pretty soon he had friends coming over to his little apartment requesting certain meals.
“You should be a chef, have your own restaurant,” he says he was told often in those days. He learned to cook under his mother’s watchful eye when he was 14. His first dish was khoresht gheymeh, a beef dish in a sauce with cinnamon, potatoes, and onions.
“It wasn’t very good and they let me know,” Nazar says of that first kitchen foray. His family was honest with him and he learned the value of tasting your dish as you prepare it, learning to add spices and seasonings as needed. He kept at it and his meals improved. A recent sampling of the dish is testament to how well Nazar absorbed those early lessons and then built upon them.
In college he was working at different restaurants in Omaha such as V. Mertz and the French Café. He says he loves and respects all cuisines, but when it came to opening a restaurant he knew to stick to his roots.
He had been eyeing the location of his restaurant for a few years. Before it was Ahmad’s, the building was occupied by Taste of Chicago. He always thought it was a great spot for a restaurant. One night he asked the owner to let him know if he ever planned to sell the place. The owner did, in fact, plan to sell, but he already had a buyer. When that deal fell through, Nazar jumped at the chance. Interestingly enough, the restaurant opened at the time of the first Gulf War.
“My wife thought I was crazy and that people would avoid us because of the war,” Nazar says.
But that wasn’t the case. In fact, Nazar says, his restaurant has always hosted a lot of military people. Many are his most faithful customers. He said he’ll often get calls from Offutt Air Force Base higher-ups to reserve tables for groups of officers traveling to the Middle East so they can experience the region’s cuisine before traveling there.
Nazar takes as much pride in the look of the restaurant as he does in the dishes. The paintings depict Persian scenes and he has about 35 pieces he rotates throughout the year whenever he wants to change up the mood. Understandably, he also pays close attention to the food. He said he doesn’t use unhealthy oils and buys the freshest ingredients. He even advises diners how they should enjoy the food.
“Most of our meats do not need knives,” he says. Tender and flavorful, he says. That’s the goal.”