Bar Koko and Persian Restaurant on Pi‘ikoi Street is All About the Meat
Exploring restaurants by the Islamic community on O‘ahu means tasting flavors from Uzbekistan, Iran, Morocco and ... Italy.
Bar Koko owner Mahmoud “Mike” Nezamloo
Persian cuisine is the mother cuisine of the Muslim world,” writes Anissa Helou in her cookbook, Feast: Food of the Islamic World. As one of the oldest cuisines in existence, which spread as the Islamic Empire grew, Persian food can taste familiar even if you’ve never had it before. At Bar Koko, it helps that Mahmoud “Mike” Nezamloo tested about 20 dishes among “friends of different ethnicities,” he says, to determine his menu. Kebab, of course, was a given. What differentiates the beef kebab at Bar Koko is the texture of the meat—ground fine and kneaded so that it’s almost smooth. It’s soft, akin to meatloaf. It, as with everything else on the menu, is served with a hearty mound of fluffy rice crowned with a scoop of saffron-stained grains.
I prefer the stews, in particular the ghormeh sabzi, thick with herbs including parsley cooked down to a consistency similar to lū‘au, along with chunks of long-simmered beef and dried limes, a staple of Persian cooking that are simultaneously tart and earthy. There’s also a vegan version, a concession to modern tastes. “Persians, they love meat,” Nezamloo says. “We’re all about meat.” But Nezamloo knows how to adapt and cater to customers.
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Combination kebab (sultani kebab, $23)
As an 18-year-old living outside of Tehran, he opened his first clothing store. He opened two more shops before leaving to study civil engineering in the Philippines to satisfy his parents. “I never practiced as a civil engineer,” he says. “Liked it but liked business more than anything else.” He moved to Hawai‘i with his wife in 2008 and worked at Nordstrom: “I was their million-dollar salesperson for five years.”
At one point, he says his wife came home, saying the nail salon she went to was selling their business.
“So we have to buy it,” she said.
“Why are they selling?”
“They said they’re not doing good.”
“OK we don’t want it.”
“No, we can do it.”
“Do you do nails?”
But, Nezamloo says, “happy wife, happy life.”
Lily’s Nail Spa and Hair Salon struggled for a year before gaining a following. Since the salon, Nezamloo has opened two hookah lounges—and when customers there requested food, he opened Bar Koko.
At first, when I see the sausage spaghetti on the menu, I think it a strange menu item, maybe for kids or the occasional person who ends up at Bar Koko when they really meant to go to Zippy’s.
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Left, Chicken stew (khoresht morgh, $14); right, Veggie stew (ghormeh sabzi) served with basmati rice and garden salad ($14)
“It’s not a traditional dish,” Nezamloo says, “but it’s been on the Persian table for a long time.” The Persian version differs from the Italian version in that the noodles are cooked with the tomato sauce (and with a touch of turmeric), and while it’s usually done with ground beef, Nezamloo’s mother would use sausage, and so that’s what’s on the menu, a little personal history mixed into the restaurant.
Open Sunday, Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m, and Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to midnight, 1102 Pi‘ikoi St., (808) 591-1916, barkokopersianrestaurant.com
Read more stories by Martha Cheng