Iran has been in the news a lot lately. From the agreement intended to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons to the re-election of the current president, there have been plenty of headlines about political intrigue within the Islamic theocracy that has dominated the country since 1979. A more enduring heritage is found, however, in the culture of Persia, the ancient, storied civilization that flourished long before today’s controversies. Persian food, underappreciated in the United States, flourishes at Tasty Kabob, located along the Apache Boulevard “Spice Trail” in Tempe.
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 restaurant is at the east end of an L-shaped strip mall that has housed numerous restaurants over the years, including Pita Jungle’s original location. The Dorsey / Apache light rail station is diagonally across the street, and bike racks are found at the corner near a “berto’s” drive-thru.
The space is slightly more formal than most restaurants along Apache’s restaurant row, but by no means stuffy. There are white tablecloths, but the service, often provided by the owners or members of their family, is unpretentious. The menu includes detailed explanations of 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 not-necessarily-Persian 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 and spices such as dill, cinnamon, and saffron. Persian food is a logical next step for anyone who has had one too many falafel sandwiches, as delicious as those can be.
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 tomatoes, onions, and cucumbers, it can suffice as a meal. The spicy beans recall all-American baked beans, only with a bit of heat.
Rice is at the foundation of almost all the entrees. Fluffy long grains are prepared in the chelo style resulting in a crusty bottom layer, known as tahdig, and a band of brilliant color from the use of saffron. The rice is matched in most cases with a kabob of chicken, sirloin, filet mignon, lamb, or fish. 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 chicken.
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. An extra skewer of meat can also be added. At a lower price, there are sandwiches of pita bread wrapped around the same 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, the sandwiches come with a bag of potato chips on the side.
Beyond the relative familiarity of kabobs and sandwiches, Tasty Kabob’s stews 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. Like the kabobs, the stews are served in lunch and dinner portions and come with a generous plate of rice for soaking up the rich flavors.
For dessert, the most familiar choices are baklava and cheesecake with strawberry or cherry toppings. Both are quite well-prepared, but a more pronounced 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. Other interesting choices are faloodeh, a chilled dessert made of thin rice noodles flavored with rose water; a Persian vanilla swirl cake; and a combination of zoolbia and bahmieh, two fried dough pastries that sweetened with syrup and flavored with rose water.
In terms of beverages, there’s a small bar with an emphasis on wine and bottled craft beers. Non-alcoholic choices include sodas, fruit juices, teas, and the Persian yogurt soda known as dough. Tasty Kabob’s house-made version is enlivened by cucumber and fresh mint. The political situation in Iran and that country’s difficult relationship with the United States may dominate current news, but the rich cultural heritage and traditional hospitality associated with Persian civilization stands out at Tasty Kabob as a more pleasant diversion closer to home in Tempe.
1250 E. Apache Boulevard, Tempe AZ 85281
Dorsey / Apache Station