An Immigrant Family Brings Iranian Cuisine to Austin
Chef Amir Hajimaleki and his family honor the fundamentals of Persian cuisine in all six of their restaurants
An Iranian immigrant, chef Amir Hajimaleki is currently bringing his fourth, fifth, and sixth restaurants to fruition in Austin. "Growing up in Iran – in a place that is beautiful and has amazing people, but is surrounded by so much violence – the one thing I remember people always being happy about was sitting around a table enjoying amazing food. At that moment they weren't thinking about what was going on in the world, just enjoying good company and good food. That's what hooked me, that's what got me into this business: I want to create that experience for people," he says.
The executive chef and co-owner of award-winning District Kitchen + Cocktails and Oasthouse Kitchen + Bar – along with his partner/brother Ali, who handles behind-the-scenes operations – designs their burgeoning empire around food and family as a way to celebrate their heritage and honor the journey, one full of love and hardship. "I was born in the middle of the war between Iran and Iraq, so the first few years of my life that I can remember were kind of hectic."
Hajimaleki's family moved to the United States from Iran when he was 8, in 1993, and landed in Denver for less than a year before settling in Austin near his maternal family. "Man, I didn't speak a lick of English when I moved here. And neither did my mom or brother, but my dad spoke a little because before the revolution he had visited. At home we always spoke in Farsi, and we still do a lot." He attributes his quick grasp of the new language to some "really great ESL teachers" in Austin ISD and being young and fully immersed. "Of course, the kids taught me the bad words first."
The biggest culture shock, however, was the food. "Food culture in Iran is big, and it's known in Iran that you don't go to restaurants to get great food, you go to someone's home. It's just kind of above and beyond hospitality – whatever you want, it's there.
"My grandma is a phenomenal cook, and so is my mom, and we grew up eating extremely fresh food cooked daily, extremely seasonal food. You didn't go to these markets and have all this frozen stuff. It was just fresh. This is what's in season, so this is what we're eating. Moving to the United States was very different, naturally, so in the beginning, it was a lot of fast food. I went from a very active, skinny kid to, after being here a year, an overweight kid, just because of eating in school. I don't know if it's still like that, but we had a lot of fried stuff, mac & cheese. None of it was stuff I was accustomed to eating, but yeah, I loved fried chicken, McDonald's, and soda – a treat in Iran, at least in our household. My mom made sure we had fresh fruit juices, so anytime we got a Coke in a bottle it was a treat. Coming here, it's everywhere, and if you want it, you can have it. That was a big culture shock for us, but I mean, who doesn't like a good cheeseburger?"
At home, his mother and grandmother were still dedicated to home-cooked meals, and as long as he can remember, even while very young in Iran, Hajimaleki was in the kitchen watching them cook. "There are so many dishes, and they have all the little tricks, and I refer to them a lot. That's why seasonality is so important to me – that's how I grew up eating."
Popular dishes in the Hajimaleki house were kabobs and ghormeh sabzi, an herb stew often made with lamb or beef. "That's the culture of the cuisine: a lot of stews with rice. My favorite growing up was an eggplant stew that has these sun-dried limes in it – delicious. And yogurt is a common condiment, so there's an herb yogurt and a spinach one, all these different flavors, and salads and stuff. And a lot of different pickling – what we call torshi. With any chef you talk to about balancing food, pickling or fermenting comes up. In our culture that's how it is, and we grew up with a balance of flavors and textures. We definitely ate really well – not necessarily expensive, but very labor-intensive food. My mom, bless her heart, that's what she did. She took good care of us."
He learned a lot afterward, too. After high school, Hajimaleki attended Le Cordon Bleu in Austin while working at Freda's Seafood Grille, and then worked at Kona Grill in San Antonio, where he met chef Rene Melendes, who would become his industry mentor and close friend. After attaining executive chef status at Kona at 21 years old, Hajimaleki moved to Baton Rouge, La., for a few years before running the flagship Kona in Dallas. "I feel like Louisiana was very similar to Iranian families as far as how passionate they are about food and cooking at home. It was so cool to see – it's very family-[centric] and people cook and get together over a good meal – and that's also how it is in Iran."
Amir and Ali, with the help of their uncle, opened their first restaurant, District Kitchen + Cocktails on Slaughter Lane, in the Circle C neighborhood in 2013. District (which boasts a second location on Anderson Lane since 2019) showcases Amir's Middle Eastern, French, Cajun, and Asian cuisine knowledge with seasonal rotating menus, craft cocktails, and weekend brunches. And in 2015, the brothers opened their second restaurant, Oasthouse Kitchen + Bar – serving elevated European pub fare with a focus on supporting local farms – in Northwest Austin's Four Points neighborhood. But it always comes back to the family, who are his best, and harshest, critics.
The Hajimaleki eye and palate for detail goes back many generations, and Amir claims his grandfather is his hardest critic of all: "He's been married to my grandma for over 50 years and he's been eating her food every day. If he doesn't like something she makes, oh man, it's on, and they're going back and forth – it's hilarious. But yeah, he's tough. I'll never forget when we had cold soup on the menu, he came in and ordered it and I got so much shit for that. He's like, 'What's wrong with you? We don't serve cold soups!' I said, 'Well, it's summer, it's corn, it's delicious.' So if I please him, I know it's good."
He adds, "My mom loves our food, but she'll also give me a hard time about things that many people wouldn't think about, like if our servers are not presenting properly, and she always checks our bathrooms – she's looking at every detail. She'll tell me, 'This is a little salty or this is too sweet,' especially when I do Persian dishes. I've made her promise to be honest because I'm used to eating her food and that's what I want to replicate – I want to bring the same flavors when it comes to Persian cuisine."
Hajimaleki's growing success has afforded him the opportunity to begin working on a new concept near and dear to his heart: a Persian restaurant called Roya, scheduled to open sometime in 2021 and had a pop-up at Eden East farm last March. "I think the Persian restaurants in Austin do a great job for their market, but the challenge with Persian food is [that] it's foreign. When you go to these big cities, especially on the West Coast, California, there are really great restaurants. I really want to bring this culture to the forefront and showcase it because it's incredible – the food is really good and it's very diverse and I think it will please a lot of different palates.
Hajimaleki envisions Roya differently from many other Iranian restaurants around the country. "When you go to a Persian restaurant and order a meal, you get this big plate of rice whether you get stew or kabobs, so it's hard to really taste through the menu. It's very heavy, you know, so at Roya, we're going to make that a little bit easier for people. We're not going to be pretentious and have small bites and tasting menus. I want to present it where people can experience it – it has to be an experience, to come in and taste what we're doing, and see the seasonality in the food and taste it."
Like his other restaurants, seasonal menu flexibility will allow them to support local farms, and the smaller menu adds to a more intimate dining experience. "Atmosphere is something I think a lot of Persian restaurants lack. There are some [wonderful] cooks that open up restaurants but don't understand that restaurants aren't just about the food – it's about everything you touch, about the atmosphere, the smells, so many different things. It's all your senses.
"I love to support anybody that's doing anything Persian in Austin. The chef that's at Caspian Grill, she's amazing and does a great job, and I definitely make it a point to support [them] because I know what they're doing is important. And it's important to me. They're trying to get people to try this 'new' food. It's not that it's that foreign, but it is, and there's not a large percentage of people who are looking for it."
Hajimaleki did a few Roya pop-ups last year, and plans to host at least one more as they're trying to familiarize local diners with not only the name, but the cuisine itself. "In a sense, we're testing the market. Is this something the market will support? I think it is. The flavors are very traditional, but they're not presented the same way. We've modernized some things and are using more culinary tech to connect with today's eater. So far the feedback has been better than I expected, honestly."
In addition to Roya, Hajimaleki plans to celebrate his favorite pastime – coastal fishing – with yet another new concept, named for his favorite pier in Port Aransas. "Keepers is a concept for the type of restaurant that I love to go to, especially since living in Louisiana and growing up in Texas. I love fishing and I go to the coast a lot, since I was 15. It's what I do to clear my head. Just drive down and go fishing for a few days."
Melendes and Hajimaleki want Keepers to be approachable, citing that most seafood spots currently in Austin are either very expensive or serving frozen fried foods. "We're trying to do something in the middle. I don't want to make it sound cheap, necessarily, because anytime you get fresh seafood, it's not cheap, but there's a lot of seafood that's not being utilized in the ocean, and we can showcase things like that, as it goes to our belief with sustainability, responsible sourcing, and not just trying to find the cheapest cut of fish to sell."
As with community feedback about Roya, they've been listening to their Circle C patrons, who they say want more family-friendly, won't-break-the-bank spots with great food – boiled crawfish in season, lighter fare like grilled fish, or a good po'boy. "We want it to be a place where we'd want to go hang out, where people can get away from the hustle-bustle, maybe even feel like they're at the coast."
Keepers Coastal Kitchen is slated to open late spring or early summer 2020 in the former North by Northwest location on Slaughter and MoPac. The space is so large that they've been able to design a unique scenario that allows the brothers to open a second Oasthouse location in the same space. That means two restaurant concepts will operate out of one kitchen, but each will have their own identity, patio, and bar. On the right, Keepers; on the left, Oasthouse.
With all the work, it's a wonder he sleeps at all, but Hajimaleki draws on his family support and his core inspiration: "I'm very passionate and excited about it all, and I love seeing the reason I did this: to have a group of people with a common passion – which is food – sit around a table having a great time, not worrying about what's going on in the world. And everybody likes to eat, right?"
Editor's Note: This article has been updated since publication to correct the name "Oasthouse Kitchen + Bar" and clarify the pop-up Roya's relationship with Eden East.