Have you ever met someone who naturally has style and possess the “cool” factor? That’s how I felt about Juliana Garcia and Selymon Shahsamand when I first met them. They are fashionable, they are risk takers and they just opened House of Shah, an Afghan Urban restaurant on Main Street in Downtown Woodland.
Their personal vibe overflows into the design of their restaurant, their menu board and the fresh, clean family recipes they serve for lunch and dinner. I had a wonderful conversation with this husband and wife duo and they helped me understand Afghan cuisine, the similarities they found in their own upbringings and the passion they have for House of Shah.
What is House of Shah?
Selymon (S): House of Shah is our new Afghan eatery. Afghani food is mostly based on rice dishes and stews. So that’s what we hope to bring to Woodland. They’re all familiar flavors because most of our food is tomato and onion based, that’s where it starts. And then we grow the flavors into it with a couple of other spices that are pretty, still, familiar: coriander, cumin, cilantro. Really good, vibrant flavors. We also use Basmati rice as our base rice. They’re all traditional dishes passed on from grandma and mom.
Afghan food is often confused with Indian food. Can you explain the difference?
S: Indian food is curry based. All our foods are mainly rice based, stew based, with just onions, tomatoes, which is what we basically start off most of our dishes with. We do, do kabobs. So our kabobs would be extra cooked in a tandoori oven, which is similar to Indian cuisine, but it’s just using different spices. For our main kabob, our chicken kabob, we actually marinate it in a yogurt marinade.
When did you first think about opening a restaurant?
S: It’s actually funny, my wife was the one that first thought about it. But we’ve been talking about it for years now. It’s just kind of one of those things that we’ve been tiptoeing around because of the economy, because of where we were financially. Just recently, in the last maybe six months to a year, we thought that if we’re not going to do it now, then we’re never going to do it. We just said, “Let’s just pull the trigger, take the risk, and go ahead and do it.”
Juliana (J): A baby pushes you to do a lot of things. We have an 11-month old, and so, at the time, you kind of start to think, “Well, all we do is talk about it.” And we’ve always talked about running a business. A coffee shop was the first option, and then that kind of blew up everywhere, so like he said, recently we just kind of started teetering around the fact that maybe a restaurant would be great. He loves to cook. He has a passion for it and it runs in the family. His dad had a food truck, and he’s had a couple of different restaurants. Now that he’s retired, he’s not doing that, but that’s a little bit of the history that we have. I’ve worked at local restaurants here growing up, like Vince’s and they’re a really close family to us. And so, we’ve been exposed to it and just six months ago, we’re like, “You know what? Let’s do it. We feel that we’re still young enough that we can make this happen, and if it doesn’t, we can restart and move on with our lives
S: We want to raise our son around the restaurant, and luckily that we do have my parents that are moving to Sacramento now, so they’ll be close. My dad will be helping me with the day-to-day, so that makes it a lot easier. We picked Woodland mainly for the fact of the small town feel, the growth that’s happening in Woodland, and just bringing something new to town.
There is no Afghan food here and really nothing like it. There are no kabobs, and that’s on the healthier side. We have fast food restaurants everywhere. We have Mexican food everywhere. So Afghani food is a little bit on the healthier side. If you go with the simple chicken kebab or the steak kebab, you’re eating a little bit healthier. We have a salad option as well. We have a good selection, so that way if someone wants to try the Afghan food, they can come with their friends and have a little Afghan food and some foods that are familiar, like our burger.
What is your atmosphere like?
S: What we’re looking to do is have a modern and trendy, inviting place. So again, because we want all of our tradition to be in the food, we want to invite people to come in and give it a try. Most people don’t know what Afghan food is, so we want to be able to have that environment where anybody is welcome and can come in and try it out. Our color schemes is white and gray. We have a beautiful brick wall and original hardwood floors. We’re going for a very clean look.
What does that mean, to bring that Afghan culture to Woodland, and with food?
S: Well, Afghani culture, it’s really based around family. I think there’s a lot of misconceptions around it. It’s very similar to the Hispanic community. Being that she’s Hispanic, and I’m Afghan, it was funny how similar a lot of things are. We would talk about how she grew up, and how I grew up, and it was very similar. So we want to bring that whole family atmosphere to our restaurants and let people see that. That it’s not what you see in the news. It’s not what you see splattered all over the media and social media. That it is just everyday life like you see here in town, you see at home. So that’s our main focus.
J: And that’s why we chose a hometown. We want to bring our home-feeling to a hometown, and not somewhere metro or try somewhere big.
What do you want Woodland to know?
S: Don’t be afraid. I want to put that out there. And I think Jules agrees that as well as that the biggest thing is walk in, talk to me. I love to talk. I’m a very talkative person, so I’ll try to explain all the dishes to you as much as I can.
What I’ve had so far: Go Green Salad, Tandoori Chicken Kabob and Afghan Macaroni