Drive north from the Beltway into Liberty Road’s abyss of chain stores, and just after the Carroll County line, in the nondescript Oklahoma Center strip mall, a sign begs for a double take: Habib’s Kabob and Bagel Cafe.
Can peace in the Middle East be far off?
The Eldersburg sister eateries are the brainchildren of Habib Rahimi, who was raised in the Iranian city of Tabriz, about eight hours north of Tehran and to whom the bagel was a foreign concept until he came to the United States in 1978 at age 28. Not that he didn’t know his way around the kitchen; his father was a talented cook who often prepared stews using fresh lamb and chicken that Rahimi and his four brothers would slaughter.
“My dad was a very generous person,” Rahimi, now 60, says. “He used to open the house and make rice and khoresh, and everybody from the town used to come sit down and eat.”
That welcoming spirit can be found today in Rahimi’s conjoined restaurants—and in his affable personality.
“He’s the type of person you feel like you know within five minutes of talking to him,” says eight-year customer Sue Dougherty, while munching on her usual bacon, egg, and cheese on a toasted sunflower bagel.
Like a perfectly seasoned stew, success needs time to simmer. Rahimi came to the U.S. to study engineering. Eighty-nine credits later, he left Morgan State University married, but degreeless.
Faced with supporting college sweetheart Kim (they’ve been married for 30 years) and their first child, Rahimi worked at gas stations, as a waiter, and at convenience stores. At one point, he commuted from Baltimore County to Annapolis, where he managed a 7-Eleven.
“There was a bagel place next door, and I always used to go there and sit and talk to people,” he says. “I liked the mood.”
His life’s vision suddenly was as clear as the center of a bagel. Rahimi went about educating himself on all things bagel, and, while in New York City buying equipment, was referred to Bagel Chalet in Commack, NY, where he served a brief apprenticeship.
Just your average Iranian Muslim slinging bagels in the Empire State.
“Most of the customers were from the Jewish community, and they knew I’m Iranian,” he says. “They accepted me right away, and I didn’t have any problems. We just communicated.”
When his Bagel Cafe opened in 1994, it was the first of its kind in Carroll County. It attracted an eclectic crowd of bagel novices as well as connoisseurs from nearby Reisterstown’s Jewish neighborhoods.
“I figured if I make a good bagel, they will know it and accept me,” he says. “I also had some customers who didn’t know anything about the bagel. Now, they still are my customers.”
Rather than boiling his bagels, Rahimi steams them, creating a less doughy disc. Word spread quickly, and space in his small cafe was soon too tight. So when the Medicine Shoppe next door shuttered, he jumped at the chance not only to expand the bagel business, but to pair it with a most unlikely partner: kabobs.
“I could not afford it, but I had to do it, because I knew it would work,” he says.
But what to call his new Persian-bagel hybrid?
“It was my daughter’s idea to put my name up there,” he says. “I didn’t want to do it. I was worried that Carroll County was too conservative to put Habib up there. But she said, ‘Dad, everybody knows you and likes you in this town.’”
Food conquers all. Habib holdouts quickly turned converts once they tasted his falafel, kabob, and baba ghanoush. Everything is made from scratch, including the somehow fluffy-yet-crisp tandoori bread, baked daily using the same method as his family back home.
Persian cuisine can be intimidating to some whose palates haven’t yet experienced its joys, so Rahimi frequently offers up samples to his customers.
Lucky them. Authenticity is cooking’s highest badge of honor, and for nine years, Rahimi’s decades-old family recipes have rung true. Be it the mast-khiar, yogurt mixed with shredded cucumbers, mint, and other herbs, or kashk-o bademjan, a mixture of sautéed eggplant, grilled onions, garlic, and sour cream, his food relies on the marriage of flavors, not flaming spiciness, to make its mark.
Loretta O’Connor and four friends have met at Habib’s for coffee and bagels a few times a week for four years, but it took a while before one of them mustered up the courage to venture to the kabob counter. Now their eyes light up (and their mouths water) when they describe Habib’s Friday night special: marinated chunks of tomato-basil salmon, grilled and served over a bed of steamed basmati rice with sides of shirazi salad, mast-khiar, and warm tandoori bread.
Yet none of those is Rahimi’s most important ingredient, O’Connor says.
“Whatever he makes, it’s always served with love.”