This Might Be the Weirdest Restaurant in America
There's definitely no old Soviet spy equipment embedded inside.
Ever since I first performed a Google Image search—the next best thing to travel, obviously—of Tajikistan, I've been mildly enamored. Nestled among a bunch of other 'stans and the western tip of China, it's a land of snow-capped mountains, rich syncretic cultural traditions stemming from its position on the Silk Road, and most of all, near-complete obscurity in the American imagination. It's virtually inaccessible and unknown. So when I was driving through Boulder, Colorado recently, I was surprised to see something called the Boulder Dushanbe Tea House.
Dushanbe is the capital of Tajikistan. What is a Tajik tea house doing in a landlocked American college town?
As it turns out, it's a long story, beginning in the Cold War muck of the early 1980s. "The Soviets were considered our great enemy," said Mary Axe, a co-founder of the Soviet Sister City Project. "A group of people interested in peace and trying to get to know the so-called enemy decided that perhaps we should find a Sister City in the Soviet Union."
Why Dushanbe, and not any of the dozens of more recognizable or politically relevant Soviet cities? During my visit I asked the Tea House's general manager, Matt Kiefer, why they went with a city so esoteric. "I think that was kind of the point," he said. But according to the program's other co-founder Sophia Stoller, there was an actual—if insubstantial—reason for choosing the capital of the former Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic. "We saw a wedding announcement for a physics professor at CU, James Scott, marrying his Russian interpreter," she said. "We called him up and said we were looking for a sister city, and he said 'I know just the city.'" Professor Scott had been to Dushanbe for physics conferences and liked it.
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Despite the Boulderites' convictions, the Soviet government remained impervious to lobbying attempts. Finally, in 1987, the Soviet Embassy approved the Boulder–Dushanbe Sister City relationship, apparently after finding out that Boulder High School had a balalaika band. Dushanbe mayor Maksud Ikramov visited Boulder and announced that he planned to gift the city a traditional Tajik tea house in exchange for the hospitality he experienced.
Finally, in 1987, the Soviet Embassy approved the Boulder–Dushanbe Sister City relationship, apparently after finding out that Boulder High School had a balalaika band.
From then until 1990, a group of about 40 Tajik artisans constructed a lavish and colorful 1,700 square foot tea house in Dushanbe and Leninabad (now Khujand). Then they disassembled it, packed it into 200 shipping containers, and sent the containers via train to Leningrad, then by boat to New Orleans, and then finally on tractor-trailers to Boulder.
"Boulder did not know it was coming," said Kiefer. "When it landed on our doorstep, we didn't know what to do with it. We didn't have the money, didn't have a location. So it actually sat in a warehouse in Longmont for eight years."
While the the disassembled tea house sat idly, the world did not. The Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, and anti-communist sentiment remained fervent until the very end; the local government even fielded complaints that the tea house was likely bugged, probably a Trojan Horse for spying on the nearby Rocky Flats nuclear weapons production facility. Shortly after gaining independence, Tajikistan fell into a bitter civil war, further stunting the logistics of constructing the tea house. Boulderites and their government representatives fought over locations, whether the money was better spent on non-Tajik endeavors, and how to eventually operate the tea house. At one point, the only proposal was to open a pizza parlor in the building.
It was all very Tajik, I think. What do I know?
Finally, on May 15, 1998, the Boulder Dushanbe Tea House opened, after a team of locals (alongside visting Tajik artisans) had spent ten months tirelessly constructing it completely by hand, sans power tools. It was the largest ever Soviet gift to an American city, and it has since become a landmark. "This is the gem of Boulder, my friend," Kiefer told me, with a sort of chummy bravado reminiscent of Danny McBride in Eastbound & Down. "It is kind of a must-see, just as if you went to India, you'd try not to pass up the Taj Mahal."
I've never been to the Taj Mahal, and I'm sure it's way better, but the Boulder Dushanbe Tea House truly is a beautiful building and a majestic site. Approaching from the east, the first impression is an explosion of colors—mostly blue, with mosaic-like patterned accents of lilac, turquoise, and yellow. It sits adjacent to a small creek, behind a line of trees that I'm pretty sure were oaks. In front of the entrance is an elaborate rose garden, apparently designed according to Tajik principles and featuring 45 rose varieties. The interior of the building heavily emphasizes wood, with intricately carved cedar columns that were shipped over fully articulated from Tajikistan, and which definitely do not have old Soviet spy equipment embedded within. The centerpiece of the interior is the Fountain of Seven Beauties, featuring life-size sculptures based on a 12th-century Persian poem, situated around a pool. It was all very Tajik, I think. What do I know?
But when I opened the menu, I was surprised to see Thai fish cakes, a Cuban sandwich, Argentinian, Greek meatballs, English sticky toffee pudding, and only two Tajik dishes. That's when I realized that this gift from Tajikistan has been operating more as a culinary homage to exoticism in general, rather than as a Tajik tea house. Despite the fact that it was meant to be a symbol of the relationship between two specific cultures, the Boulder Dushanbe Tea House is more Epcot than Dushanbe.
I asked Kiefer if any of the staff had been to Tajikistan. They hadn't. I asked Sara Martinelli, the co-owner of the restaurant (though the city of Boulder owns the building), the same question; she hadn't either. Members of the Sister Cities organization do go to Tajikistan, but they don't operate the Tea House.
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I wondered if the Tajiks who had been involving in sending this most generous gift might be offended that the building wasn't being used to serve Tajik food. After some detective work, I found a woman named Maya Vakhobova, who had worked at the American Embassy in Dushanbe in the 90s, and had been the main liaison between the Boulderites and her fellow Tajiks. Since then, she's actually moved to Colorado and frequents the Tea House. "They don't have the cooks from Tajikistan," she said. But she and her fellow Tajik-Coloradans don't mind. "We love to try different kinds of food. It's America. It's a very nice place. We love it."
She's right. It's America. And the Cold War is over, so perhaps we don't need to be reminded that there is beauty within the former communist enclaves of the Soviet Union. But in a way, this landmark to ambiguously defined otherness is exactly what the United States of today needs. Modern America struggles with xenophobia to the extent we don't even know which specific cultural traditions we fear. We've banned immigrants from countries that the majority of our citizens couldn't even locate on a map.
So maybe we need to be spoon-fed a bit of broad xenophilia, whether in the form of Tajik plov or Peruvian chicken. And despite the Tea House's relative lack of cultural specificity, Dushanbe is the perfect city for tolerance scrimmage. Because in the American purview, what is Dushanbe if not a-place-you've-definitely-never-been?
We can get to the specifics when we, as a nation, are ready. For now, pass me the foreign food.