With all the attention focused on the negotiations over Iran's controversial nuclear program, it's easy to miss some of the other important developments in that country, and by that I mean the burger boom that's taking place in Tehran.
Someone who's been on top of that meaty story is the Washington Post's Jason Rezaian, who recently filed a superb report from Tehran about the city's profusion of burger joints. Here's a taste of his article:
Greasy burger joints have been part of Tehran’s fast-food landscape for decades, even in the years just after the 1979 Islamic revolution, when any symbol of U.S. culture was denounced as an example of “Westoxification.” Those eateries were mostly in downtown working-class neighborhoods, serving laborers in need of a blast of calories or students watching their budgets.
Now, though, high-end burger restaurants are suddenly popping up across the city, making the gut-busting American institution — and the quest for the best burger — the latest trend in Tehran dining.
Facebook pages dedicated to local hamburger outlets debate their relative merits, comparing them to McDonald’s, In-N-Out, Burger King and other U.S. chains. That fascination with brands has resulted in such blatant rip-offs as McAli’s, Superstar — conspicuously similar in appearance to Carl’s Jr. — and even a place calling itself Five Guys.
I recently sent Rezaian, who's been based in Tehran since 2009, a few questions to get a bit more of the backstory of this Iranian culinary awakening. Our exchange is below:
How did you come upon this story?
I'm always looking for ways that might help readers see into Iran better. Food is a good way to do that, as are trends that show an unexpected side of Iranian life. Also I just like to eat, so restaurants are something I notice. Over the past couple months I realized people were talking about burgers more so I figured I'd look into it. And it seems like something the story that came out of that search resonated with a lot of people.
Beyond burgers, is Tehran having a “foodie” moment? How would you describe the dining scene and its crowd?
Because there aren't a lot of options for entertainment in Iran restaurants have become popular. Restaurants offer a place for people to go out on a date or friends and families to celebrate an occasion. Over the past couple of years lots of new restaurants opened and many closed. Most restaurants still serve Iranian food, but increasingly you have restaurants branching out into other cuisines. There are lots of places trying to be Italian, a few doing Indian and even one Mexican restaurant owned and operated by a Mexican American woman and her Iranian husband. I think we're still a ways away from a true foodie moment or movement, but a lot of the needed elements are there, most importantly the demand for it.
And if you were to read between the buns, how would you describe the political subtext to the profusion of burger joints?
I don't think the political subtext is anything deeper than people wanting to branch out culinarily and enjoy food in new and possibly exotic environments. That such options are possible I think comes as a surprise to many people outside of Iran who have a very different image of the place and its people. So I think the real story is about exposure: Iranians being exposed to new and interesting foods and trends from abroad and foreign readers being exposed to a more layered look at everyday life in Iran.
Has there been any sort of backlash to the rise of the burger? Can you imagine one?
None of the restaurant owners I spoke with reported any sort of problems and I can't imagine one. As one of the many people who commented on the article said, a burger is a just a round version of one of the Iranian kebabs.
Finally, let’s get some tasting notes: how were the burgers you tasted and what are your top picks?
I've had a lot of burgers in my day, all over the world. I wouldn't say any of the ones I ate compared with the best burgers I've had, especially in the US. That said, I would take any of the burgers I ate while researching this article over all the main US fast food burgers. I really like Burger House, the one that's the impromptu drive-in place, and Dukkan makes a great burger. Since the article came out I've been approached by numerous Tehran residents telling me about their favorite places and apparently there are quite a few places I missed. In my defense, it's a pretty vast city!