Several years ago, I was one of several people privileged to assist a writer from The New Yorker with researching Zarif Khan. Locals of his time knew him as Louie or Tamale Louie. Zarif was an immigrant from lands shared by Pakistan and Afghanistan. He owned a restaurant behind what was then the Ideal Hotel.
The Ideal Hotel was initially built by Peter Demple as a saloon and once used for the Sheridan County Courthouse, among other things. Both Louie’s and the Ideal were torn down in June 1965 to make way for the new Woolworth’s building, at the corner of Main Street and Grinnell Plaza. Zarif had sold the restaurant in the 1950s, having served the community as local patriarch of tamales and hamburgers in the community for several decades.
Author and lawyer Gerry Spence who grew up in Sheridan commented that Louie’s had a reputation for a great hamburger for 10 cents, but his family never went there as his mother thought it too expensive and too greasy. Retired U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson recalled Zarif’s ability at slicing pickles stating, “…[he] chopped the pickles so deftly that it looked like he took all of his fingers along with the pickles. I was always fascinated by that place and remember distinctly the tastes and smells of it..”
The story of Zarif Khan is the heart of the American Dream — an immigrant who came to America, developed a successful business, worked hard and lost everything and yet persevered. He invested in the stock market and was one of millions of people who lost their fortunes in the crash of 1929. Undaunted, he invested in the stock market again and rebuilt his fortunes once again.
Zarif was known for being community minded and he donated to the Liberty Loans during World War II. He also sent care packages of cash, checks and cigarettes to innumerable soldiers serving overseas. Howard Sinclair, writing as his pen name Neckyoke Jones commented on Zarif’s passing in 1964, “…Sheridan lost a landmark. All of the ol’ timers knowed him an’ liked him. He was a purty good citizen. If ‘en LBJ, the presydent wanted to put a feller at the head of ‘lick poverty’ campaign, ol’ Louie would just about fill the bill.”
Whenever I speak to someone who knew Zarif from being a customer, a twinkle shows up in their eyes. Recollections include his strong personality, but also his caring nature with younger customers. The food was always incredible but his personality seems to have been as much of an experience as the gastric indulgence at the shop on Grinnell.
Recently, I revisited the life of Zarif and delved again into the wonderful story that was his life. It has been several years since the article about Zarif appeared in the New Yorker. Since then a statue of him was cast and now adorns Grinnell Plaza. A musical production about him was made several years ago. Several books now reference his experience as a Muslim immigrant and one of innumerable tamale salesman that once dotted the American frontier.
His legacy as a member of the Sheridan community and as a naturalized citizen now extends beyond the city limits into the history books.