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Touring Little Persia

Houston's best undiscovered cuisine unfolds along the Hillcroft strip

Connect the dots along a certain 12-block stretch of Hillcroft and you'll come up with Little Persia: Houston's latest ethnic commercial hub, a scattering of shops and restaurants serving the 50,000-plus Iranians who call this city home. These establishments run, in more or less ascending order of grandeur, from just below Westpark clear up to Westheimer, where the starchy, determinedly rose-tinted Cafe Caspian has dispensed astonishing clay-oven flatbread and artful dips for six months now.

In between, adventurous eaters can have a field day devouring the Little Persia corridor -- handicapping its galaxy of kebabs, discovering why Iranians are the Middle East's acknowledged rice maestros, developing a connoisseurship of yogurt's tantalizing permutations. There is heady cardamom tea to be sipped and exotic Persian stews to be savored. There are great flaps of mountain bread and tall bottles of mint syrup to be bought; acres of ineffable decor to be ogled; a highly civilized self-serve and a funky, home-style steam table to be sampled. Are there bumps along the way? Decidedly. But each eatery has its own particular strengths, and overall the interest level of Little Persian food -- not to mention the Little Persian experience -- is very high. The prices, praise be, are not.

At every turn, the provocative juxtapositions spawned by Houston's mutating social landscape crop up -- along with patrons who range from a dead ringer for the late Shah (Hello? National Enquirer?) to a Tonya Harding manque sporting an "Ask Me About Being Hypnotized" T-shirt. The more formal establishments assume a clubby aura on weekend nights, when affluent, extended Iranian families stream in around 9 p.m., the preferred dining hour. Interspersed among the table-hopping regulars are Westheimer singles and gilded suburban youth of every cultural persuasion, all of whom know a good deal when they see one.

Down in the more casual, Westparkian precincts of Little Persia, waitstaff and shop attendants are as likely to be named Manuel as Mahsoud. I had one of those little Houston epiphanies at the Super Vanak Iranian grocery, where a Latino cashier was eager to swap tips on what went best with those impossibly long, corrugated bread loaves called barbari. (Philadelphia Brand cream cheese, he insisted.)

The true Little Persian bread sensation, though, is taftoon: the flat, crackly-crusted wheels that emerge hot and beautifully singed from Cafe Caspian's clay oven. You can plow through three or four of these loaves before you know it, so well do they suit the restauran's gratis, first-course garden platter -- an inviting array of feta cheese, radishes and onion sprouting a thicket of parsley and aromatic fresh basil. It's a lovely ritual, this elemental plate. So are the cafe's habit-forming appetizer dips -- especially a voluptuously caramelized, chestnut-colored mash of roasted eggplant and an arresting blend of bright-tasting, house-made yogurt laced with garlic and spinach. A faintly toasty yogurt dip made with mint and shallots is subtler, and almost as appealing. Together with taftoon bread, this is swoon food.

If only the kebabs were as good. Alas, Cafe Caspian tends to overcook or oversalt its skewered, grilled meats. Unforgivingly dry, gray filet mignon chunks landed in the debit column one evening, along with moist-but-way-too-salty sliced chicken breast. Credit the rosy, slightly tart lamb chunks, however, and a pleasant-enough kebab of ground beef. And the monumental braised lamb shank is an unvarnished success: meltingly tender, glossed with a saffron-colored glaze and wanting only a squeeze of lemon to bring it to attention.

The rice served with these dishes could convert the most indifferent of disbelievers. Cooked in typically painstaking Iranian fashion -- soaked, much-rinsed and steamed with a cloth to catch the moisture -- it is served forth in fluffy oval mountains, each grain elegantly distinct. The basic white rice, crowned with a handful of saffron-hued grains for effect, is nothing short of revelatory; and the green rice, studded with baby lima beans, might well cause food riots if it featured fresh dill instead of the largely tasteless

ried version.
The exotic Persian stews traditionally ladled over rice of both sorts rate a try here. Cinnamon-scented, tomato-based gheymeh bademjan, oniony and salty/tart, bristles with yellow split peas, molten eggplant slices and hunks of fatty beef. More foreign -- and intriguing -- are the green, jumpy flavors of ghormeh sabzi, with its intensely vegetal mesh of spinach and herbs (scallion, mint, cilantro and fenugreek leaves), its punctuation of red kidney beans and its distinctive edge of dried lime. The small bits of beef involved seem strangely irrelevant.

Another stew, fesenjan, is a special case: literally medieval-tasting, this sharply sour-sweet lake of deep-rose pomegranate and ground walnuts whaps your palate anew with each bite. Western diners would do well to order it strictly as an experiment Ñ doubly so since it features dismal pieces of overstewed chicken.

Dapper Ray Karr, Cafe Caspian's co-owner and resident James Woods look-alike, is a natural born schmoozer who enjoys touting fesenjan's thousand-year-old legacy and recounting the provenance of India's tandoori oven (it arrived in the form of Persia's clay tantour during an ancient military campaign, he maintains). Lurking in his speech patterns is a clue to the way Iranian emigrants market their businesses in the post-Ayatollah era. "Ira..." Karr is wont to begin, cutting himself short and substituting the more neutral-sounding "Persia."

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