In the glitz and polish of Manhattan’s Flatiron neighborhood, it is easy to walk past Pizza Paradise. With its frayed green awning and fluorescent lighting, this pizzeria looks almost out of place amidst the trendy specialty bakery across the street or the children’s bookstore next to it. Notice the front windows on the left, though, and you’ll find Saeed Pourkay, slight of stature and thick of mustache, hunched over his dishes in his window-display food counter. And when you walk inside, the smell of marinara sauce and freshly baked crust mingles curiously with that of rose water and saffron. At this tiny workspace by the window of the pizzeria, Pourkay has been serving New Yorkers what his growing group of avid fans deem to be the best Persian food in the city.
Surrounded on three sides by casserole dishes, rice cookers, and boiling soup pots, Pourkay serves specialties such as āsh reshteh (a thick bean-and-noodles soup that takes eight hours to make and gets garnished with dried mint and dollops of tangy kashk), fesenjān (a meat stew with a walnut-pomegranate molasses base), and gheimeh bademjan (a beef stew with yellow split peas and eggplant). Most of it is served with fragrant saffron rice.
Pourkay, who is from Tehran, ran a print shop across from Pizza Paradise for almost 20 years, before deciding to cash out his share of the business and follow his dreams. The memory of the āsh reshteh he used to buy from street food sellers in Tehran, as well as the version he’d make for his parents, inspired Pourkay’s second act as New York’s preeminent Persian food chef. For a time, after quitting the print shop, he was homeless and living in a friend’s Brooklyn warehouse, but his neighbors on West 18th Street had his back. One of them gave him a freezer and a refrigerator to get his new business started, and the owner of the pizzeria let him use the front window rent-free for the first few months.
Initially, Pourkay took baby steps by first selling his āsh at the Union Square Holiday Market in 2012. In early 2013, he opened his counter at Pizza Paradise. Four years later, the pizzeria was forced to temporarily close after a fire. But Pourkay was undeterred: A GoFundMe campaign raised enough money to help him while he set up his annual stall at the Holiday Market and worked without a storefront. The chef returned to his usual haunt at the front window of the renovated pizzeria in January 2018, and he’s remained there ever since.
Pourkay shares the kitchen with the pizzeria workers and needs to cook when they don’t use it, which usually means early mornings and late afternoons. The pizzeria generously shares the few tables they have as well as cutlery and plates for Pourkay’s customers who want to dine in. Since its inception, Taste of Persia NYC has been carried by the warmth, friendship, and kindness of a community of New Yorkers helping each other, and it shows in the food and hospitality of its chef.
Update: As of February 2020, Taste of Persia lost its space within Pizza Paradise and was forced to close. Pourkay is currently looking for a new location. After he discovered that the pizzeria had started selling Persian foods under the misleading name “Tasty Persia,” he posted an emotional video showing the new storefront and started a protest. While the pizzeria has since stopped its Tasty Persia operation, the video moved fans to create a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds for Pourkay’s search for a new space.