5548 N. Broadway
The sign out front reads "Paradise: Authentic Persian Cuisine," and his renditions of simple Persian and Turkish favorites like dolmeh and stuffed peppers are excellent--but Samad Ahmadi insists his business isn't really a restaurant. "It's a gallery," he says. "Selling food supports me so I can show the next person." The long dining room is crowded with the owner's distinctive outsider art--expressionistic paintings on glass, plastic, and mirrors, murals, five handmade fountains, multimedia works that defy definition--and psychedelic strings of colored lights line the walls. At one end a balcony overlooks the space, a former auto garage; at the other a handmade stage is poised over an old Mercedes convertible.
Ahmadi, who's 48, picked up a paintbrush for the first time in 1998, back when he was still running an auto shop in the building. "I stopped by a garage sale and I could tell the woman selling the stuff was pissed off," he says. "I asked her, 'What's wrong?'" She told him her Cadillac wouldn't start and that she'd just learned it would cost her around $1,800 to fix it. Ahmadi offered to take a look at the car, and when he did he discovered that all it needed was a new fuse. As a thank-you the woman gave him a set of oil paints and some brushes. "I'm not a painter," he says he told her. "She looked at my face and she said I had something inside. A gift is a gift."
That very night Ahmadi made his first painting. He began with a realistic depiction of a pack of Marlboro Reds, but says that before long symbolic images began pouring out of him: "I painted for four hours straight. I have no memory of what I was doing the last few hours." When he woke up the next morning he was stunned by what he'd created--"It was my life story," he says.
The gift had come at an opportune time: Ahmadi's marriage had fallen apart, and nerve damage to his spine was making his work as a mechanic increasingly painful. Art became his escape. "Every night I was dying to go home and paint," he says. He began using his auto garage to house his work, then started using the cinder-block walls as canvases.
Although he'd worked in his father's restaurant back in Iran as a child, Ahmadi had no other restaurant experience. Nevertheless, in 2003 he made his decision to turn the auto garage into a place that would showcase his work. He can't bear to part with his works, so a real gallery was out of the question. Instead he took out a bank loan, built out a kitchen onto the space, and added still more art to the dining area. After two long years of work, Paradise opened last December.
"The moment I planned to open this place all my friends laughed at me," Ahmadi says. "They said, 'This isn't a restaurant, it's a museum.' They asked me why I didn't open a regular-looking restaurant. I said I wanted it to be different. That's one of the things I love about this country--you can do things differently."
Ahmadi came to Chicago on a blustery October day in 1986 with $28 in his pocket. He'd spent the previous four years trying to get a visa to the U.S. "I didn't leave Iran, I escaped it," he says of his departure from his hometown of Tabriz, in Iran's northwest corner, in 1982. "It took me six or seven days to reach the Turkish border on foot. My dream was to come to America. As a kid we read books about America, land of opportunity. I didn't have a chance to improve myself in Iran." He traveled across Europe, doing manual labor in between visits to U.S. embassies in Turkey, France, Germany, Greece, and Austria. His visa application was denied again and again. In Italy, after eight months of trying, he finally got lucky.
He expected an Iranian friend then living in Chicago to meet him at the airport, but when Ahmadi arrived there was no sign of him. He went to his friend's apartment in Uptown and, finding no one home, proceeded to sleep on a floor mat inside the building's vestibule for the next three nights. "On the third day I had only $3 in my pocket," he says. "I walked from here to downtown, stopping in any store, any shop, asking if I could give them a hand. Everyone looked at me strange--I was wearing the same white suit, white shirt, and white shoes I'd worn from Italy--and everyone thought I was a cuckoo or a druggie or an alcoholic."
Finally, he found a sympathetic employer--a fellow Iranian--at the old Rush Street nightclub Faces. Told that he would need black clothing, Ahmadi asked if the club had a washing machine. He says he took off his suit, dropped it in the washer, then broke two black pens and threw them in after. "That afternoon my clothes were black," he says.
Ahmadi worked at Faces doing "whatever that needed doing" for three months, and soon managed to find an apartment and rent an Uptown garage where he opened his auto repair business. It took him just three more months to move to a bigger space on Broadway, and over the next decade his business grew steadily--he added a body shop, a junkyard, and a towing service. In 1988 he met his first wife, also an Iranian immigrant. They married in 1989.
At the time of Ahmadi's divorce, though, things got tough. Over the next five years, at times unable to work because of his spinal injury, he was forced to sell two of the three buildings he'd acquired. In 2002 he went back to Iran for the first time in 20 years. There he met a woman his father had set him up with; they married last year. Trained by her mother and with six months of private cooking lessons in Chicago under her belt, Arozu Ahmadi does most of the cooking at Paradise. Her specialties include halim bademjan, an intensely minty warm eggplant dip; lobia, a cold appetizer of red beans in a garlicky, vinegary marinade with walnuts and onions; and dizi, a two-course dazzler consisting of a bowl of rich lamb broth and then the lamb itself, served with a melange of eggplant, potatoes, and chickpeas and a piquant tomato relish called torshi, redolent of fresh parsley, cilantro, dill, and basil.
As good as the food is, "every time people come in here I watch them and they can't finish theirs because they're always looking around," Ahmadi says. "There's so much to see that they can't see it all the first time. And this place will never be finished. It's all from my imagination."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.