I pulled up to Caspian Grille in Lafayette Hill, hungry and anticipating a homemade chicken gyro.
I pulled up to Caspian Grille in Lafayette Hill, hungry and anticipating a homemade chicken gyro. Ali Rashidian, 67, owner and “chief cook and bottle washer,” greeted me at the curb with his usual smile while he was pushing his hand truck, filled with food and supplies, into his store.
He apologized, saying I might have to wait because he is by himself in the store, not able to get any help since Covid descended (like almost every other restaurant and food business), wreaking havoc on merchants’ lives and businesses. I did wait along with another couple ahead of me. Ali said his workers left for better-paying jobs with Amazon and Uber.
After putting away the rice, feta cheese, veggies, etc., Ali set up the grill and began cooking our lunches with all fresh ingredients, no additives. A woman came in to pick up an order she was bringing to her son in Center City for Mother’s Day Weekend.
She told Ali, “Don’t forget to save some of that wonderful white tuna salad for my daughter when she comes in later this afternoon!”
I walked along the refrigerated display cases and marveled at the copious amounts of prepared foods. Everything from fish, wraps, appetizers and salads to Spanakopita, vegetarian meals, chicken and meat entrees. And let me not forget to mention the potato latkes and Ali's famous cranberry relish, handmade with cranberries, orange, apple and pomegranate.
Ali came here from Iran in 1978 on a student visa. While visiting his brother, who was attending the University of Houston and studying engineering, Ali attended Houston Community College for two semesters, taking math and English courses.
He transferred to the University of South Carolina, where his major was agriculture and veterinary science.
He decided to change his major to electronics and graduated from Louisiana State University with a BS degree. While there, he worked in local restaurants that served up mostly burgers and pizzas.
By then, at age 30, with a wife, Simin, and two young children, Ali and Fashad (now in their late 30s), Ali considered returning home to Iran, but his mother, living in Tehran, urged him not to come. The Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), which killed about 500,000 soldiers and civilians, was raging, not an appropriate atmosphere for raising young children.
Opportunity knocked in1982 when a childhood friend living in Philadelphia urged Ali and family to stay with him and save money by helping him in his restaurant.
Ali played soccer with local neighborhood boys, many of whom were Armenian.
The mother of one of the boys said she would help Ali learn to make Middle Eastern food, starting with tabouli salad and baba ganoush. Ali experimented on his own, incorporating spices from the Middle East, developing his own signature dishes and then opening a Flourtown Farmers Market booth in 1986.
“I learned so much from my customers,” Ali said. “They introduced me to so many recipes and shared ideas with me.” He hired many of the neighborhood children to work with him at the Farmers Market.
“The children I used to put on top of glass cases and give treats to are now adults with their own children who still frequent my business (opened in 2002) and the Flourtown booth managed by my son, Ali.”
One of many delightful anecdotes Ali shared was this: During the Iran-Contra Affair, an elderly woman with a voice prosthesis admonished Ali for having his chicken salad labeled “Persian chicken salad.” She told him, “Nobody wants to buy it with that name during these times.”
He asked her what he should call it, and she said, “Everybody loves French labels, so call it French chicken salad.” The name remains to this day, but the salad still has the coveted Persian spices that Ali incorporated.
After 35 years since he started in the Flourtown Farmers Market, Ali is mindful when old friends come into his store. He might inquire as to how the spouse of a customer is, only to find out that he/she has died. He now sees “the continuum of life,” the children of families who frequented his store now bringing in their own families and the passing of dear customers after so many years in the business.
Caspian Grille is located at 539 Germantown Pike in The Shoppers Mall, about one mile north of Chestnut Hill College. It is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
For more information: caspiangrille.com or 610-834-7660.