Tuesday, July 9, 2002
E. MacGREGOR, Times Staff Writer
It heralds an Iranian ice cream parlor, with flavors so exotic they sound like poetry, and ingredients that sound as if they must have been harvested from a Persian garden. The flavors, which cost $4.95 a pint, have names like Creamy Rosewater, Rosewater Saffron, Ginger Rosewater, Rosewater Sorbet and Orange Blossom. Then there is the Mashti, a $2 ice cream sandwich--a scoop of ice cream squished between two thin wafers, rolled in fresh pistachios.
The store belongs to two brothers, Mashti, 51, and Mehdi Shirvani, 37, who grew up Mashhad, a small town in northern Iran. "We are not Malones," says Mehdi, the lively younger brother, and salesman of the joint. "Do I look like a Malone?"
The multicultural name is merely a product of the layers of history that accumulate in mini-malls around this city, as owner after owner stamps his personality on the establishment, leaving an erratic record that will confound archeologists of the future when they try to piece together Los Angeles at the turn of the 21st century.
The soft-spoken Mashti, ice cream genius of the duo, bought the establishment in 1980. At the time, it was an ice cream store called Mugsy Malone. "I didn't have enough money to change it, so I just added Mashti," he said.
The brothers do happen to have a sister-in-law by the name of Malone, who lives in Cape Cod and is married to their older brother, Iraj. When Mashti bought the store, he told her they bought it for her, which made her laugh.
Indeed, the name is so outlandish that a group of filmmakers who were shooting in the mini-mall in 1983 and took a shine to Mashti wrote "The Legend of Mashti Malone," whose fanciful verses now grace the walls of the cheerful shop:
in a time and a place little known, lived an old farmer named Mashti
Malone.And though he worked his poor hands to the bone Nothing would
grow in his hands except stone ... "
He came to the United States in 1978 to study electronics. He worked as a chef in various restaurants and even opened a restaurant of his own, but he had to return to ice cream, his first love.
"Ice cream is much better," Mashti says. "Ice cream is happy business."
Initially the store sold almost all of its ice cream wholesale, to more than 300 Persian and Armenian restaurants whose customers love the Rosewater flavors that reminded them of home. ("Rose water is the No. 1 dessert flavoring in the Middle East," said Mehdi, who joined his brother here in 1988. "It's just like vanilla here.")
But sometime in the late '90s, after an intense one-on-one marketing push to persuade every non-Iranian who walked into the ice cream store to try it, people in the neighborhood started catching on. "We didn't take the retail part of our business very seriously until we saw them react," said Mehdi."Everyone thinks of their grandmother's perfume, of soap, of air fresheners. Now we tell them, 'We know this is going to remind you of your grandmother's perfume....' Once they try it, they are hooked." Indeed, 60% of the shop's retail customers are non-Persian, up from 5% just three years ago.
Hollywood has been through ups and downs in the last two decades, and the Shirvanis weathered years when many small businesses went under. Today, Mashti Malone's, which is two doors down from the Lava Lounge, is a fixture in the neighborhood, satisfying locals who flock to the store on weekends. Over the years, the little shop has become a community center of sorts for immigrants missing the sweet tastes of home. The Shirvanis said Hollywood redevelopment has boosted business, which has never been better.
After the Food Channel did a segment on Mashti Malone in April, calls poured in from all over the country--Hawaii, Maine, Vermont, Alabama--demanding shipments of the exotic flavors. The brothers have launched a Web site (http://www.mashti.com) and will mail the ice cream anywhere in the U.S.
Here, in the ice cream inner sanctum, the walls are lined with containers of cardamom, rose water, a secret spice mix, pistachios, and a $950 tin of "red gold," the best Persian saffron. Except for the ice, the cream and the sugar, all ingredients for the exotic flavors are imported. From Iran, if possible.
"It depends on the political situation," says Mehdi. "If there are no sanctions in Iran, our relatives will do it. If not, we have a lot of different sources in the Middle East."
Mashti is the ice cream alchemist, constantly refining his flavors. He incorporated the starchy noodles used in a favorite Persian dessert into a light rose sorbet to make what many think is the freshest-tasting flavor on the menu (it's called faludeh). The concoction is eaten with a squirt of lemon juice and a dash of sour cherry, and is so refreshing it could inspire an overheated tourist to walk another 50 stars down Hollywood Boulevard. Mashti also created orange blossom ice cream. Currently he is honing his rosewater ginger; he wants it to be strong enough for Persians but not overpowering to the more sensitive American palate.
"What do you think?" he asked a visitor. "Is it too strong?"
One recent day, he and his assistant Sonia Castro made the staple: Creamy Rosewater. First they stirred the special mixture of cream in a big bucket. Then they dumped in the rosewater. Twenty minutes later, the machine churned out in a milky cascade. They stirred in the ice chips by hand. Before they put it in the freezer they offered a taste.
The final stanza of "The Legend of Mashti Malone" drifted through their visitor's head, as the silky ice cream melted on her tongue:
Rosewater ice cream, your taste buds will moan.
Dozens more flavors, each great on its own.
Guaranteed to put you in the heaven zone.
So goes the legend of Mashti Malone.
Mashti Malone is located at 1525 N La Brea Avenue in Hollywood and is open Sunday through Thursday 11:00 am to 10:30 pm. Friday and Saturday 11:00 am to 11:00 pm. (323) 874-6168.
2002 Los Angeles Times