“Under the radar” doesn’t describe just how obscure Cafe Rumi is. This is the most established Boulder restaurant/market that is unknown to even many savvy Boulder foodies.
The North Broadway location boasts complicated signage and is home to the decade-old In Season Local Market, the 3-year-old Cafe Rumi and a lab where Szechuan button (a sense-dazzling edible flower) products are created. Mostly, Cafe Rumi is where you will find the remarkable Karim Amirfathi, from about 11 a.m. to about 7 p.m. Monday to Friday.
When I walked in for the first time, the look and spice aromas of the place zapped me back to Boulder’s seminal natural food markets and healthy cafes in the 1970s. Places like New Age Foods, The Yarrow Stalk, Carnival Cafe, Green Mountain Grainery and Pearl St. Market were open during the birth of the U.S. natural foods industry.
“This place feels like you are in a time warp,” a longtime Cafe Rumi regular tells me with a smile on her face.
In Season Local Market offers a curated selection of organic nuts, grains, spices, seeds, dried sour cherries, Turkish figs and Mission figs plus teas and local honey. A stack of planters growing diverse microgreens and herbs fills the front window.
There is a refreshing absence of pretension and an egalitarian approach. The only tables at Cafe Rumi are community tables so you never dine alone. Cafe Rumi is named after Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī. The 13th-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic left behind a wealth of writings about how to live.
(“Wherever you are, and whatever you do, be in love.” — Rumi)
Amirfathi grew up in Iran, leaving there at the age of 26. His interests have always been diverse. “Growing up I always liked to work with plants. I majored in science and went to medical school. Then I went to law school and studied international relations,” he says. After moving to Colorado, he studied at CSU, became an electrical engineer at CU and worked for 22 years for a phone company.
All that time he was growing crops at Altan Alma Farm, including wheat grass, microgreens, buzz buttons and herbs, and he keeps chickens for eggs and beehives. Amirfathi says he works “about 95 hours a week. I like people, and I hope they leave here feeling better.”
(“Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.” — Rumi)
The fare at Cafe Rumi is prepared in an extremely tiny kitchen. The chalkboard menu is just an icebreaker. Brunch grain bowls, house-made yogurt, egg sandwiches, wraps and salads are available, but Amirfathi doesn’t want to know what you think you want to order. He cares about what you need. He looks you in the eye and asks: “What is it you would like to eat?”
Like a dining therapist, he asks persistent questions when it comes to his daily lunch/dinner plate, a “simple” rice stir fry. He uses very long grain rice — the longest I’ve ever seen. “To cook, you wash it first to get the starch off. You steam it and then rinse with cold water,” Amirfathi says. The separate, noodle-like grains are stir-fried with olive oil.
“I see which organic veggies would be good for them. I can add grilled natural meats, sometimes garbanzo or fava beans. Do you want it spicy with cayenne or more Eastern with cardamom? I like ginger, saffron and turmeric. Persian cuisine is rich but never very spicy hot,” Amirfathi says. One popular variation is a traditional pilaf dotted with first-class nuts and dried fruits.
Cafe Rumi’s mixed organic salads are served with special pickled whole mustard grains that appeared to Amirfathi in a dream. “One night as I slept my mother came to me and gave me the recipe. I soak the mustard seed in vinegar for three weeks and add a little honey,” he says. The mildly pungent seeds are an unexpected pop of flavor.
(“The heart is cooking a pot of food for you. Be patient until it is cooked.” — Rumi)
He serves everyone his special Persian botanical tea and sometimes a unique appetizer: Plump sweet figs coated in powdered buzz button. It is a genuinely unique oral experience — herbal with a pungent, tingling sensation and a hint of numbness.
“We were listening to National Public Radio and a story came on about Szechuan buttons. They said that the herb could replace a whole medicine cabinet. I started growing them as an experiment and started discovering what they could do,” he says.
The spilanthes acmella plant has antibacterial, antibiotic, anti-inflammatory and antiseptic effects that can be used for gum health, pain management, skin care and other therapeutic reasons.
Amirfathi grows organic buzz buttons at Altan Alma Farm outside Boulder, the home he shares with his wife, Sharon. “I use it in skin and mouth products I make here. I have dozens of products I can put buzz buttons in to help people,” he says.
(“When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.” — Rumi)
Local Food News
Final notes on 2019: Formosa Bakery is open at 1305 Broadway as a tiny, one-person counter dishing authentic Taiwanese-style street food including savory pancakes, beef noodle soup and dim sum faves from siu mai to egg tarts. … Boulder’s Big Red F will open a fifth The Post Brewing Co. in the Carriage House at Estes Park’s Stanley Hotel in 2020. … Recipe — running Jan. 9-19 at the Savoy at Curtis Park — is a performance and story-sharing project collecting tales from locals about how food has shaped their experience of home. theartibus.com/recipe
Taste of the Week
My final addition to the Best Things I Ate in 2019 is a winner. The Lithuanian dumplings dished at Eridu, one of the stalls at Boulder’s new Rosetta Hall, are a lip-smacking joy. The envelopes stuffed with local lamb and mushrooms are served in a rich lamb jus with perfectly braised lamb, creme fraiche and green onions on top like a stroganoff.
Words to Chew On
“Good food is a right, not a privilege. It brings children into a positive relationship with their health, community, and environment.” — Alice Waters
John Lehndorff hosts Radio Nibbles on KGNU (88.5 FM, 1390 AM, kgnu.org). His blog page is: johnlehndorff.wordpress.com