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Neighborhood legacy

Ray’s Café honors its late owner with affordable meals and Persian food.

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Ray’s Café owner Shermin Khazaeli shares photos of her late husband Reza “Ray” Moeeni. - JACOB THREADGILL
  • Jacob Threadgill
  • Ray’s Café owner Shermin Khazaeli shares photos of her late husband Reza “Ray” Moeeni.

As Shermin Khazaeli and Reza “Ray” Moeeni began a long-distance relationship between Oklahoma City and Tehran, Iran, in 2009, many of the “dates” occurred over Skype as Moeeni introduced Khazaeli to many of the regular customers at his restaurant, Ray’s Café, 2727 NW 50th St.

Khazaeli felt the love of Moeeni’s customers emanating from the screen all the way to her home halfway around the world. She accepted Moeeni’s marriage proposal over Skype, and they were married in 2010. Khazaeli — an ESL (English as second language) teacher and  occupational therapist — received her green card to immigrate to Oklahoma in 2011.

She continued her educational career path, becoming a licensed teacher and taking work with the Putnam City School District, first teaching part-time in an elementary school before taking a full-time job with a high school.

Khazaeli’s world came crashing down in June 2015 when Moeeni died of sudden heart failure at the age of 64.

“He was a very happy-go-lucky person, and he was the love of my life,” Khazaeli said of her late husband. “My whole world shook up [when he died], and I didn’t know what to do. It was so hard because I had to go through grief and so many other things. Little by little, I picked up the broken pieces and rebuilt myself.” 

Khazaeli said she heard from people that she should consider shutting down the restaurant. She had to finish teaching and had no restaurant experience, but she was determined to keep the memory of her late husband alive through his cafe.

“[Ray’s Café] is a fruit of a lifetime of my husband that I adored,” she said. “He put his heart and soul in this place. He came to the U.S. when he was 19 or 20. He built his life with his own hands; he was the epitome of the American dream. If I sold the restaurant, I’m actually betraying him. This is his legacy and the way I can stay close to him. He was such an awesome man, and I feel like I’m with him when I’m here.”

Through the help of friends like Mark Khandani, owner of Sara’s Restaurant in Midwest City, Khazaeli gained the skills and confidence to work in the cafe’s kitchen. Not only did she want to be competent to help cooks in the kitchen, but she wanted to make improvements.

She invested in entirely new equipment in the kitchen, made cosmetic changes to the restaurant and revamped the menu. She introduced more from-scratch menu items like chicken-fried steak and buttermilk pancakes and added special nights like Indian taco and catfish dinner nights.

In September 2016, Ray’s started hosting a Persian food night 4-8 p.m. Thursdays. A fixed menu of seven classic Persian dishes are joined by rotating specials, and each meal is finished with Persian tea and baklava, but her version isn’t as cloying as the honey-doused Greek version of the phyllo pastry.

“Persian Night has gone very well and been successful,” Khazaeli said. “No other place [in the metro area] has so many [Persian food] varieties.”

Taco salad - JACOB THREADGILL
  • Jacob Threadgill
  • Taco salad

Persian dishes include gheymey, a beef and split pea stew with eggplant, and adad polo, an aromatic mixture of basmati rice, lentil, raisins and caramelized onions that can be served with chicken. Baghali polo is lima beans and dill rice served with chicken, and fedenjoon is chicken and walnut stew topped with a pomegranate sauce. Ghormeh sabzi is a beef stew with kidney beans and sun-dried Persian limes. Halim bademjan is a blended mixture of beef, lentils and eggplant served with Middle Eastern sour cream and caramelized onion and mint.

I’ve driven past Ray’s many times, but I always assumed it was a standard all-day breakfast diner. Its Persian night was what brought me in the door a few weeks ago.

I tried loobia polo, green beans with rice ($7.99) joined by stewed beef tips. I was pleasantly surprised to see the dish is joined with a pair of side salads: cucumber with tomato and yogurt with dill.

The rice spiced with cinnamon, cloves and cardamom provides a depth of warm flavor without drifting into spicy notes. I would’ve preferred more than three or four pieces of beef in the dish, but it was tasty — particularly the rice.

Loobia polo is a dish that Khazaeli’s mother would often make once per week.

“It reminds me of childhood, especially of Fridays, which were our only day off,” she said. “I associated it with happiness and comfort.”

She said that she will be adding other Persian items like kotlet — a spiced mixture of ground beef and potato formed into a ball and pressed flat as it shallow-fries on the flattop — and meatballs with rice, spices and split peas to the menu.

Blueberry French toast with hash browns and grits - JACOB THREADGILL
  • Jacob Threadgill
  • Blueberry French toast with hash browns and grits

The Persian items at Ray’s represented my favorite meals. I also tried the taco salad and a breakfast plate of blueberry French toast with hash browns. The taco salad was served with chili in a standard pre-packaged taco bowl and left me wondering why more foods don’t come served in a taco shell bowl.

The blueberry French toast hit the spot, but the hash browns were only lightly browned on one side, and the grits were instant. It’s hard to fault a restaurant for taking a few shortcuts when it passes the savings to the customers.

Every item on Ray’s menu is less than $10, and food arrives from the kitchen within minutes. I’d highly recommend Ray’s on Thursday evenings for Persian food and to frequent when you’re in need of an affordable meal served quickly with a lot of love.

“My vision of this place is that I want to bring a personality to this place, and I don’t want people to think it’s just a mediocre diner,” Khazaeli said. “Mediocrity is not in my vocabulary. Financially, I have limits, but within that limitation, I’ll do my best. Many people tell me it feels like home.” 

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