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It would be nice, before one croaks, to say one saw a camel in a St. Louis Cardinals cap. If such a thing – or anything remotely resembling it – is on your bucket list you owe it to yourself to drop by the Falafel-Eating Competition and Hummus Bar Block Party / 30th Anniversary at Café Natasha (left) Tuesday.
Natasha’s, purveyor of Mideast/Persian treats, started – in a Downtown location that was a cult hit in the early ‘80s – 30 years ago this year. Of the many changes that time has wrought at the house of hummus, perhaps none has proven more significant than handing the reins to the woman after whom the restaurant is named.
Natasha Bahrami was 13 when her parents named a restaurant after her. If that had happened to most of us at that age, we would have gone from Brat to PowerBrat, having fun at the expense of others as only teenagers can.
Natasha gracefully absorbed the amazing compliment, bestowed by chefs/owners/parents Behshid and Hamishe Bahrani, continued to grow up in the restaurant, and some 20 years later has offered her vital expertise at what the kids do best: social media. A blog, a lively Facebook presence, an interactive history timeline, a revamped web site and a re-branding have followed. In conjunction with her parents, Natasha (flanked by Hamische and Bahshid at right) – now the general manager, although she commutes back and forth from a job and residence in Washington, D.C. – oversaw a remodeling of the dining area this summer and some recent menu changes. The coup de grace is the 30th anniversary party and its star, the camel in the hat.
The camel (left), who goes by Coco, is supposedly a tame beast. While on furlough from the petting zoo, she is expected to keep her spittle to herself, and to sport the Cardinals cap her owner has been training her to wear. Perhaps she will also dip her tawny snout into a bucket of chickpeas and have a go at the third annual Falafel-Eating Competition.
The record, set last year, is daunting: 22 felafels in five minutes. Take a look at the size of the falafel balls in the photo below. They are not miniature. And they have a way of undergoing a transformation when eaten – like concrete, when water is added. It's a rough scene.
Of the dudes and the occasional lady who stuff pounds of the fried legumes down their gullets at high speed, the victor, reported Natasha, generally uses the MLE (Major League Eating) method of dunking the food in water to soften it and speed mastication and swallowing. Yo, amateurs, please note the technique. Apparently, there are semi-pro eaters in this city.
In addition to a camel and a falafel-eating competition there is also the Unlimited Hummus Bar Happy Hour and a llama.
The former will be familiar to fans of Natasha’s. It's an all-you-care-to-eat buffet of vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free dishes including "hummus, falafel, vegetable stew, a variety of Persian Basmati pilafs, fresh sautéed mushrooms and grilled eggplant dip with a pomegranate molasses drizzle.” You might also order from Natasha's menu, featuring sirloin-steak kebobs which are not marinated in crack cocaine, said Natasha, although some customers think so. (They are addictive.) “We also make homemade gyros here,” she said. “We make the [meat] cone ourselves from ground beef and lamb. It could only be more from-scratch if we brought the cow in.”
The latter is a llama named Lover, and also has been cleared for belligerent tendencies. Indeed he is, in the words of Natasha, “an attention whore.” (Thus, his name.)
The nostalgic gathering may stir up memories of “The Little Kitchen,” the ur-version of the restaurant secreted within the Paul Brown Building at 8th and Pine streets.
“The Little Kitchen was American cuisine with a menu that took baby steps into Persian food,” Natasha recalled. “People didn't understand the Mideastern food back then. We had to spoon-feed them, to go from spaghetti and meatballs to Persian dill rice. Pretty soon they had to have the Persian food.”
The restaurant was renamed Cafe Natasha and relocated to the Loop in '93. The South Grand location, at first called "Cafe Natasha's Kabob International" (right), has been in business since '01. For a time, the Loop and South Grand locations were open concurrently, and an 18-year-old Natasha found herself in charge at the former.
“It was a lot of responsibility,” she said. “I was starting school at SLU and managing a business at the same time. My mother is this charismatic person and the customers have always fallen in love with her. Because I wasn't that person yet I quickly had to learn how to become my mother. I think being thrown into that situation was really the best thing that could have happened to me. It's sculpted the rest of my life and will help me to take over someday.”
Not so fast, young Bahrami. Natasha's parents aren't going anywhere soon. Her mother Hamishe and father Behshid both hold court at the restaurant daily, and Hamishe still cooks Persian delicacies in the Cafe Natasha kitchen from morning to night.
In conclusion (and instead of a segue), why a camel?
“I've been obsessed with camels a long time,” said Natasha, “and I have a goal of owning a camel farm right here in Missouri. I’m not joking. I've been researching land and camels and the existing camel culture in Missouri. Hummus and felafel is about the Middle East, so what better than to have a dromedary – which is a one-humped camel – here for a while. It's my dream come true. Camels are not native to Iran, by the way. I'm just crazy.”
Tuesday, September 10
Hummus bar, 5 to 8 p.m., $10
Coco the Camel & Lover the Llama, 6 to 7 p.m.
Falafel-eating competition, 6:30 p.m.
Cocktail competition, 7 p.m., $2 to sample all cocktails
3200 S. Grand