Across from the hostess stand in Paymon’s Mediterranean Cafe & Lounge on Maryland Parkway is a little door hidden behind a plant stand. It leads into a tiny room, not much more than a closet, thick with the heady aromas of a Middle Eastern bazaar. The storage racks are stacked ceiling-high with bags and bottles of Turkish turmeric, Syrian Aleppo pepper and Persian sumac. A small counter offers some workspace alongside a modest spice-bottling machine.
This is the start of Paymon Raouf’s next empire—this one built on the spice trade.
In that tiny room Raouf has been blending the seasonings that go into his restaurant’s addictive Athens Fries for years. Premixing the spices ensured his dishes were consistently prepared. Eventually, he began bottling his own mixes and acquired the Spice Bazaar brand, so the adventurous home chefs among his customers could easily experiment.
Having already done the work of vetting quality suppliers, he began mixing spices for the signature dishes at other restaurants a few years ago. Metro Pizza’s pasta sprinkle comes from his spice closet. So does Hash House A Go Go’s table blend and Ricardo’s chili Colorado mix. For local performer Seth Grabel, Raouf bottles “Magic Dust,” the magician’s own recipe for meats and guacamole.
“My numbers are small right now, but I promise you, we will be the biggest around in five years,” Raouf says.
His restaurant started small, too, he recalls, just 700 square feet in 1988. Friends scoffed at his business plan because few Americans knew of gyro meat, hummus and falafel. “‘Just sell hamburgers,’ they said. But I set my mind to it. I focused on quality. I gave away samples to educate people, and it worked. Now, I set my mind to spices.”
Pass the …
A few decades ago, American cooks grabbed the saltshaker to add flavor to dishes. “It kills me when I see ‘season with salt’ in a recipe,” Paymon Raouf says. “Salt is salt. If you want flavor, there are so many better choices.” Here are just four:
Sumac: It’s in many of Raouf’s blends, including his Athens Fries seasoning, and found on most Persian tables, but is hard to find in grocery stores. It’ll add a tang to grilled meats and salad dressings.
Aleppo Pepper: Replace whatever red chili flake you’ve been using with this fruitier, all-purpose seasoning. It’ll add brightness and just a bit of heat.
Rosemary: “It grows everywhere here,” Raouf says. “Just cut it fresh and start using it. Don’t go buy it.”
Lemon Pepper: But choose carefully. “The stuff you get at the grocery story relies on salt, citric acid and MSG for flavor. A good lemon pepper uses lemon oil and spices,” Raouf says. Salt is the fourth ingredient listed this version.
This summer, Raouf’s newest venture, Las Vegas Spice Co., will move into a 3,000-square-foot commercial facility. That will let him expand the custom blending services for chefs. He’s also developing a line for gift stores that play off the Sin City reputation. “Stripper Spice” is a sweet mix to “leave you wanting more,” the label proclaims, while the “69” blend promises “oral satisfaction in a bottle.”
“Don’t judge me—it’s just marketing,” Raouf says, sheepishly. “But, really, who needs another shot glass?” While the labels might be cheeky, the product won’t be cheap, he assures. Then he launches into an earnest discussion of spice quality. Take a bottle of lemon pepper off a grocery- store shelf, he challenges, and see how many ingredients are chemicals or fillers. “These chemicals may make your food taste better, but they are cheap substitutes for real spices, for real flavor. And they don’t stop working once they leave your tongue. Just imagine what a meat tenderizer does to your body, your muscles. I feel so strongly about this. I could go on.”
And he does, lamenting the unscrupulous vendors who mix in dyed corn silks with saffron threads to bring the cost down. Saffron, in particular, strikes at his refugee heart. His native country, Iran, is known for producing the best.
He also extols the medicinal virtues of spices. “These [pharmaceutical] companies make millions of dollars by taking the extracts of spices and putting them in pills. Look at turmeric. It’s not in the [American] diet, but it’s a good antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. Put it on your food now and you won’t have to take pills later.”
Fortunately, he says, Americans are expanding their spice knowledge, as TV chefs and multiculturalism introduce them to new dishes and the Internet makes the exotic accessible. “They’re coming around,” Raouf says. Just like Las Vegans came around to his hummus.