Reza “Ray” Moeeni landed in Kansas more than 40 years ago with a thousand dollars in his pocket, hopes for a great education, and a prosperous new life in the United States.
When the Iranian Revolution occurred in 1978-79, Moeeni had to leave his university because his family had no money to pick up the tuition. Working odd jobs from Kansas to California, Reza did what he needed to survive.
In Texas, Reza found permanent work in the restaurant business. He began as a dishwasher in the Kettle restaurant chain and worked into management, where he learned how to run his own establishment … and that’s exactly what he did. This time, Oklahoma City welcomed him.
Moeeni’s widow, Shermin Khazaeli, remembers asking him why he chose OKC.
“He told me, ‘Because there was more opportunity and affordable living,’” she says with a smile.
Moeeni began Ray’s Café on the south side in 1996, then moved to its present location on Northwest 50th Street in 2001.
“I was in Tehran and had a wonderful life as a professor in a university teaching English as a Second Language,” Khazaeli says. “A friend said she had a relative who was living in Oklahoma and that she thought we would be a good match.
“I was not really looking to be in a relationship, but agreed and said yes … then immediately wished I had not. I was secretly hoping Reza wouldn’t call me.”
Khazaeli laughs. From that long, initial phone call, Moeeni, a man who had never owned a computer, bought a laptop so he and Khazaeli could chat face-to-face as often as possible at the café’s register at lunch and during breaks.
“That’s how I got introduced to a lot of Ray’s regular customers,” Khazaeli says. “Reza even asked me to marry him over Skype, and I couldn’t say yes fast enough.”
After marrying in Iran in 2010, then waiting a year for her green card, Khazaeli settled into her new life.
“I had never been to the United States before, let alone Oklahoma City,” Khazaeli says.
Khazaeli was hired to teach ESL at Putnam City High School and had “the best years of my life,” she says. But in 2015, a month before their five-year anniversary, Moeeni died of a sudden heart attack.
“I was devastated,” Khazaeli says with what only one can imagine was the same lost expression that she had then. “What was I going to do? This place that Reza literally put his heart and soul into … what was going to happen to it?”
One booth over from where Khazaeli sits, a customer answers the question.
“Ray’s Café is the gem of the neighborhood,” says Dana Spence, having a meal with her brother, Donnie Spence Jr. “A lot of the regulars are older. This is where they socialize and get a great meal.
“A lot of folks need Ray’s. It’s a gem, and so is she.”
With help from her husband’s friends and fellow restaurateurs, Khazaeli took a crash course in the restaurant business and got to work. She expanded the café’s offerings to include the now-popular Persian Night on Thursdays.
“I made some cosmetic changes to the interior, bought a lot of new kitchen equipment, and started incorporating more fresh ingredients,” Khazaeli says. “All the Persian food, I have more of a hand in; otherwise, I am in good hands with the people who work here. They’re really great – like family.”
In Khazaeli’s eyes, her husband remains the café’s heart.
“Every morning, the first thing I say is, ‘I love you, Reza,’” she says.
- 1 pound beef neck or beef tips
- 6 large eggplants
- 1/2 cup lentils
- 1 cup Persian whey – kashk
- 2 large onions
- 2 or 3 garlic cloves
- 2 tablespoons dried mint leaves
- Turmeric, salt and pepper to taste
- Cooking oil
Chop one of the onions. Sauté the onions with 3 tablespoons of oil in a pot.
Add 1 1/2 tablespoons of turmeric, a teaspoon of pepper and a tablespoon of salt to the onions. Mix well and add the meat.
Fill the pan with water to cover the meat. Let it cook on a medium high flame until the meat is cooked well and the water is evaporated.
Cook the lentils with some salt and water until they are soft. Drain the lentils.
Peel the eggplants, cut them in wedges and fry both sides.
Traditionally, the ingredients should be blended using a solid wood pestle, but I use a food processor to blend them well. After the ingredients are blended, put them back in a pot and let the mixture simmer for 10 minutes on low heat. Stir occasionally so the bottom won’t burn.
Mix the whey with a cup of hot water to dilute it. Pour half of the mixture into the halim bademjoon pot and mix well.
Slice the second onion thinly, and fry it in a pan with oil. When it is nearly caramelized, smash the garlic cloves and fry them together until all turn golden brown, then remove the pan from heat.
Pour a few tablespoons of oil in a pan and let it heat on medium high heat.
Add 1/2 tablespoon of turmeric, then the dried mint, then sauté for 10 seconds.
Remove from flame.
Pour halim bademjoon in a bowl, garnish with the mint, garlic and onions, then drizzle the rest of the whey on top.
Serve it with warm flat bread.