After Narrowly Surviving the Pandemic, This Persian Restaurant Is Trying to Recapture Its ‘Before Times’ Success

Maneli’s Persian Cuisine almost became a casualty of the COVID-19 crisis, but owner Reza Ghobadi is bouncing back with encouragement from loyal customers

“Happy Birthday” signs decorated walls and chairs were situated on a stage by the window, remnants of a weekend party. It was a Monday at Maneli’s Persian Cuisine, and several employees had called in sick, so Reza Ghobadi couldn’t open his restaurant. Employees bailing on shifts has become a more frequent occurrence, so he might scrap Mondays entirely for a bit. Still, after basically running Maneli’s solo for many months, business is slowly returning to his Tarzana restaurant. Against all odds, Maneli’s survived the pandemic.

Ghobadi is from the oil epicenter Ahvaz in southern Iran. This highly personal restaurant is the culmination of the more than two decades he spent managing popular Persian restaurants in the Valley like Shamshiri in Northridge, Darband in Tarzana, and Shiraz in Sherman Oaks. Ghobadi finally made the leap to ownership in October 2019. The space previously housed a wedding chapel, so he had to endure grueling period of construction, remodeling, and permitting before opening his dream restaurant.

In early 2020, Ghobadi was feeling grateful for his first solo venture. “I’ve been working in the Valley and know many people. It feels like home here,” he said then. “Twenty-two years of being here, trying to reach out to the community, I’ve made so many Persian, non-Persian, Israeli, and Armenian friends.” He was hopeful.

During the pandemic, Ghobadi wasn’t able to secure a paycheck protection loan from the government, so when business evaporated, he had to let go of his staff, including talented chef Payam Yousefpour, who relocated to Orange County. Ghobadi began personally overseeing every aspect of operations, including taking orders, managing inventory, and making deliveries. He also had to cook all the food, so he streamlined Maneli’s menu, cooking fewer stews each day to avoid waste and tabling Yousefpour’s kubideh negini (diamond kabob), a Tehran specialty featuring ground beef studded with chicken breast gems.

“They understand the situation,” Ghobadi says, referring to his appreciative customers. “They’re just happy that I’m open.”

Ghobadi originally called the restaurant Maneli’s Kitchen, which advertised “Mediterranean gourmet cuisine,” but to make the focus clear for customers, he updated the name to Maneli’s Persian Cuisine. In both cases, the name refers to his eight-year-old daughter, one of four children.

Maneli’s Persian Cuisine has a notably deep menu, including a few dishes that are particularly hard to find in the U.S., like beryan ($22). This regional specialty from Isfahan features a soft mound of ground lamb and veal cooked in a skillet and seasoned with “secret” seasoning that includes saffron, onion powder, garlic and cumin. Maneli’s Persian Cuisine serves beryan atop pull-apart sangak bread with pickles to cut the richness. Ghobadi’s grandmother is from Isfahan, so this dish means a lot to him.

Kabob torsh ($22) is popular in Northern Iran and features delectable skewered filet mignon marinated with grated walnut, pomegranate molasses, and garlicky, herbaceous saffron seasoning. Each savory chunk incorporates nice tartness and comes with fluffy basmati rice, grilled tomato, bell peppers and onions.

Persian cuisine is well known for rice preparations called polos. Maneli’s menu touts eight different saffron-stained versions, which star in plates with meats. It’s also common to substitute basic basmati with these flavored rices. Options include tart zereshk polo studded with tiny barberries and sweet, hearty adas polo loaded with lentils, golden raisins, and dates. Kalam polo is Maneli’s most unusual polo, folded with basil, cabbage, and dill.

Chicken tahchin ($15) is a Tuesday special worthy of a calendar reminder. Buttery rice slabs studded with tender chicken breast chunks are held together with yogurt, butter, and egg and crisped in the oven. Ghobadi made his tahchin thicker, since, as he explains, Persian people appreciate quantity, not just quality. Each order comes with a choice of salad or soup, which could be zesty tomato-saturated cabbage or earthy lentil depending on the day.

Maneli’s also offers an array of bold dips and appetizers. Kashk bademjan ($8) is a thick roasted eggplant dip featuring shallots. Thick, extravagant hummus ($7) is deep yellow in color thanks to the addition of saffron, and is dressed with olive oil and paprika. Zeitoon parvardeh ($4, small) features pitted green olives tossed with tangy pomegranate molasses, crushed walnuts, herbs, garlic, and lime juice.

Remarkably, Ghobadi never closed fully during the pandemic even though he never set up an outdoor dining space. “My wife was here helping me out sometimes, but because I have kids, she couldn’t be here all the time,” he says. “Obviously, it was really hard. I was almost about to close the place, but again, I said, ‘No, I spent so much money on this place.’ My costumers were also encouraging me. ‘Good job, keep it up.’ That gave me more motivation.”

Ghobadi says there were days he’d serve just one customer, but he’s been working hard to bring back employees, provide better service, and restore weekend entertainment options, like live music and belly dancing. Bottom line: he needs to draw more customers. Ghobadi estimates he’s only recaptured 25 percent of his Before Times business.

Ghobadi has finally allowed himself to have expectations for Maneli’s Persian Cuisine again. “I want it to be some of the best Middle Eastern food, at least in the area,” he says. “Everybody’s happy about the food. They show appreciation, say quality is good, quantity is good, and service is good.” Now all the restaurant needs is more customers that he can treat well. As Ghobadi says, “I love people.”

Maneli’s Persian Cuisine; 19347 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana, 818-699-9321.

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