Think back to the TV series “Charlie’s Angels,” and what name comes to mind first? For most people, it’s Farrah Fawcett, even though she was on the show only one season. The premise was that all the detectives were alluring, but often the other stars were overshadowed by the woman known for her red swimsuit poster. It’s unlikely that reruns of “Charlie’s Angels” show in Iran, but the cuisine of Persia displays its own beauty at Tasty Kabob, a restaurant which, like Charlie’s other angels, is often overshadowed by its better-known neighbor.
In this case, the neighbor is Pita Jungle; in fact, it’s the chain’s original location. Both restaurants are in the L-shaped strip mall diagonally across from the Apache / Dorsey light rail station in Tempe. While Pita Jungle is consistently and deservedly crowded, Tasty Kabob almost always has tables to spare. That’s unfortunate because Persian food is distinctive from other types of Middle Eastern food with an array of flavors all its own. Combine the quality of the food with the gracious service, and it’s clear this is a place worthy of more support.
The space is slightly more formal than most restaurants along Apache’s restaurant row, but by no means stuffy. There are tablecloths, but the service, often provided by the owner or his family members, is unpretentious. The menu explains most entrees, but staff can fill in any gaps regarding unfamiliar dishes. The dining room is augmented by a well-shaded patio facing Dorsey. It’s a relaxing place for a meal on mild days, although the music, often a mix of distinctly non-Persian ‘70s pop hits, can be louder outside than indoors.
Although Iran is often classified under the vague term “Middle East,” Persians consider themselves ethnically, linguistically, and culturally differentiated from the Arab nations to their homeland’s west. Likewise, the traditional food of Persia shares traits with the Arab cuisines represented along Apache, but charts its own course through the use of yogurt, eggplant, and rice, along with herbs such as dill, cinnamon, and saffron. It’s a logical next step for anyone who has had one too many falafel sandwiches, as delicious as those can be.
|chicken kabob with zereshk polo|
Meals can start in familiar territory with hummus or vegetarian stuffed grape leaves. Both are quite good, but it would be shame to ignore the Persian appetizers. A dip, eggplant borany, is similar in texture to baba ghanoush but adds its own layers of taste from mint, garlic, and onions topped with a bit of yogurt. Aash, a traditional soup, is a hearty bowl full of beans, wheat noodles, and vegetables. Paired with a shirazi salad, which combines diced tomatos, onions, and cucumbers, it can suffice as a meal.
Rice is at the foundation of almost all the entrees. Fluffy basmati grains prepared in the chelo style are abundant, matched in most cases with a kabob, usually chicken breast, sirloin, filet mignon, or lamb. The barg versions of the meats add another layer of taste with larger pieces and more assertive flavor. Zereshk polo takes the restaurant’s signature rice to another level by topping it with saffron and barberries, a fruit with a tart taste that contrasts effectively with mild white meat chicken.
|chicken and beef combination kabob|
With many entrees, Tasty Kabob offers both dinner and lunch portions, and the usual heaping serving of rice can be replaced with a half-and-half combination of rice and salad, a nice way to add some vegetables to the meal. At a lower price, there are also sandwiches based on pita bread wrapped around the same choices of meats or vegetables found on the kabobs. While the sandwiches are a relative bargain, there’s a price to pay: They lack the bountiful rice of the kabob platters. Instead, they come with a bag of potato chips on the side.
At the other end of the spectrum, anyone willing to spend a little more should explore the stews. These are among the more adventurous traditional Persian entrees. Ghormeh sabzi is a thick, dark beef stew seasoned with cilantro, chives, and dried limes. Gheimeh bademjan blends pulpy roast eggplant with chunks of beef in a similar sauce. Fesenjan veers in a slightly different direction with meatballs or chicken in a base made with walnuts and pomegranates. All stews come with a generous plate of rice for soaking up the rich flavors.
To drink, there’s a full bar, sodas, fruit juices, and the Persian yogurt soda known as dough. Tasty Kabob’s version is enlivened by cucumber and fresh mint. For dessert, the known quantities are cheesecake and baklava, but the Persian touch is evident in the ice cream, which derives its intriguing flavor from rose water, rich golden color from saffron, and a little crunch from pistachios. Another interesting choice is the combination of zoolbia and bahmieh, two Persian fried dough pastries that are sweetened with syrup and flavored with rose water.
“Charlie’s Angels” lasted only five seasons with a noticeable decline during the last two. Tasty Kabob, however, has been around for over two decades despite being less crowded and less known that its popular neighbor. That longevity is a testament to the restaurant’s quality and the perseverance of the family that owns and operates it. By all means, enjoy Pita Jungle, a local success story not only in Tempe but at its newest location in Downtown Phoenix, but next trip to Apache Boulevard, why not try a Persian meal at Tasty Kabob?
1250 E. Apache Boulevard, Tempe AZ 85281
Dorsey / Apache Station