The lamb shank looked like something that belonged in a Fred Flintstone cartoon. The size and shape of a small Mexican papaya with a thick bone protruding from its side, the meaty hunk sat perched atop a generous mound of speckled green baghali polo (basmati rice with dill and fava beans), a small saucer of yellowish-colored consommé provided so you could dunk each bite of lamb into it.
And it was magnificent: fall-off-the-bone tender, exceedingly moist, not the least bit gamey and entirely delectable on its own (though the broth was a nice touch). It was the type of dish you’d be served when invited to dinner at someone’s grandmother’s home, or maybe something you’d find at a restaurant where the family had kept its recipes a closely guarded secret for generations.
Instead, we found it in Westchcase at Avesta Persian Grill, on a sweltering Houston summer evening when the air conditioning was on the fritz and it was so uncomfortably hot that a heavy lamb dish should have been the last thing we wanted. The fact that we cleaned the plate in spite of the circumstances says a lot.
“This is a rare find,” my dinner companion proclaimed. And indeed it was.
Tucked away in the side of a strip mall off Wilcrest and Westheimer, Avesta Persian Grill is a place you’d overlook completely unless someone had told you about it beforehand. There’s nothing about the basic, beige facade — nondescript, with darkened windows in the front — that gives even the slightest suggestion that something remarkable awaits within, nothing that makes you want to pull over and give Avesta a try.
A family-owned business and first effort for Zaffar Anvari, the 54-seat neighborhood restaurant is for all intents and purposes the realization of the American dream. Anvari is a first-generation immigrant from Tajikistan who moved to the United States 11 years ago, settling in Houston in 2010. He says he has spent this entire time in the restaurant industry, first as a dishwasher, moving up to busboy, and eventually becoming manager at chain restaurants from Jimmy John’s to P.F. Chang’s.
In September 2015, he opened Avesta Persian Grill with his father, choosing the name Avesta (which refers to the religious texts of Zoroastrianism), not for religious reasons but because of its significance in Persian history.
Avesta’s menu is not significantly different from those at other Persian restaurants in the Houston area, such as Garson or Kasra Persian Grill. There are dips, salads, kebabs and other popular Persian specialties. Because Avesta is a smaller restaurant, however, the menu is more abbreviated, and that’s a good thing since you’ll find very little on it to lead you astray. It’s also astoundingly affordable considering the quality of what you get.
That magnificent lamb shank we tried? Just $10.99. Most of the main dishes fall in the $10 to $15 range as well, with the appetizers ringing in at right around $5. The staff doesn’t try to up-sell you either. In fact, when I visited with a female friend and tried to order too much, our server offered us half portions of our appetizers so we wouldn’t be overwhelmed.
It’s a good thing he did so too, because it was impossible to stop eating Avesta’s complimentary hot-from-the-oven Persian taftan — a pillowy, slightly chewy clay-oven-baked bread that’s a cross between Indian naan, a Mediterranean pita and a Malaysian roti canai. We broke off pieces to munch with our complimentary salad of parsley, feta and radish, then broke off some more to dip in our half orders of creamy hummus and our plate of warm kashk-e-bademjan baked eggplant dip topped with caramelized onion.
If we were already almost full by the time our main course arrived — a combo platter that included one each of chicken chenjeh (large chunks of marinated chicken breast), beef chenjeh (large chunks of marinated beef), chicken koobideh and beef koobideh (ground chicken and beef) — the sight of the succulent nuggets of chicken chenjeh arranged next to beef kebabs and just-charred wedges of bright red tomato was enough to restore our appetites.
The chicken chenjeh was as toothsome as it appeared, moist and tender and properly seasoned. It complemented our side order of albaloo polo (basmati rice topped with sour cherries), which had a pleasing, voluptuous quality to it because we’d topped it with a small slab of real butter.
The chicken koobideh was also very good, the meatball-tender quality of the ground chicken enlivened by the kitchen’s adept use of seasoning. We enjoyed the chicken dishes more than those made with beef, which unfortunately were overcooked and rather liver-y in taste that evening. And though the server immediately offered to redo the beef when we gave him this feedback, it was enough to know that he was willing to do whatever he could to help us enjoy the meal.
This willingness to please, and the obvious pride he had in the food he was serving, was underscored when he presented us with cups of hot Persian tea and two pieces of the house-made baklava—gratis—prior to bringing us the check.
A second visit, during which we would discover a wonderfully complex and wholly commendable dish called fesenjan (ground pomegranate and walnut served over chicken chenjeh), as well as a very gratifying Cornish game hen kebab called “chicken and bones,” left a similar impression.
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So much so that the one bad dish we had — a sad, basic jumble of chopped iceberg lettuce with tomato and olive that was supposed to be a Greek salad (definitely something to skip) — couldn’t shake the feeling that in Avesta, we’d found a diamond in the rough.
Avesta Persian Grill is the kind of place that you’re almost loath to introduce people to, lest the secret get out and it gets too packed. It’s nicely appointed and clean, small and cozy, with adequate space to accommodate small families. It’s the kind of place where the owner is there every day and the servers will recognize you after you visit a couple of times. A place where the food is impressive and satisfying yet priced so modestly that you can feast without worrying about the budget. When you stumble upon a place like that, you do what any food-loving patron does: You remain loyal and visit often.
Avesta Persian Grill
2691 South Wilcrest, 713-781-5555, avestahouston.com. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays through Saturdays; 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays.
Boran-e-bademjan (baked eggplant with yogurt) $4.99
Kashk-e-bademjan (baked pureed eggplant with whey) $4.99
Greek salad $4.75
Fesenjan (pomegranate and walnut puree with boneless chicken) $10.99
Chenjeh shish kabob (beef filet kebabs) $12.49
Koobideh kabob (ground beef kebabs) $9.49
Lamb shank $10.99
Chicken chenjeh kabob $11.49
Chicken with bone kabob $10.99
Specialty Persian rice $2.50 supplement
Dough (yogurt drink) $2.29