Touring Little Persia

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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."

Karr, who for years has run the valet parking operation for caterer-to-the-stars Jackson Hicks, clearly has uptown aspirations. Courtly (if overextended) waiters, white-shirted and necktied; allusions to antiquity in the form of classical-style statuary and becolumned arches backlit in red; and a mock-barrel vault sculpted out of acoustical tile all strive for the tone of a tablecloth restaurant. Never mind that the tables wear murky-pink oilcloth topped by Persian-motif photos under glass. Glad-handing his prosperous clientele, Karr is a man well-pleased. "I kept saying, 'There aren't any nice Persian restaurants in Houston,'" he offers. "So..." He trails off, shrugging eloquently.

Two blocks south at the Garson Restaurant, one of Houston's earliest Persian places, those would be fighting words. Garson (the name is a takeoff on the French for "waiter," believe it or not) may be a bit worn around the edges, but its faux-high-tech-on-a-shoestring look is understated and fresh, its patrons dressed-up, its stews alluring and its grilled meats the best in Little Persia.

Granted that Garson's stale-ish pita can't hold a candle to Cafe Caspian's magnificent taftoon. And that Garson's free garden plate seems less dewy, its eggplant dip less riveting than its rival's. However, the brisk spinach-and-garlic yogurt dip suggests a sure-footed kitchen; succulent little grilled quail and perfectly cooked kebabs confirm it. Best option: the Garson Special, twin skewers of rosy beef filet and wonderfully moist, charcoaly chicken breast with a lemon tang and a saffron sheen. Big, charbroiled shrimp would be great if not for their harsh iodine flavor (maybe a new supplier is in order). The only irredeemable clunker was the shishleek, a chewy beef slab reminiscent of minute steak.

Do I need to tell you that Garson's rice is fabulous? Or that their beef-and-eggplant stew, fetchingly decorated with fried potato sticks, is particularly vibrant? Beef fares better in stew-form here than it does at Cafe Caspian: big, tender chunks inhabit the green-vegetable sabzi, which is deliciously strange and astringent. Fesenjan is just plain strange, as usual, desiccated Cornish hen and all.

There are plenty of small pleasures at Garson. Big pitchers of ice water on every table. A quirky Iranian chicken salad, bound with mayonnaise and mined with canned green peas, that is really more of a picnic-worthy potato salad. Complimentary bowls of a peppery tomato-and-rice broth that grows on you. Eager-to-please waiters (the garsons, if you will) in crisp, snowy shirts and formal ties. Vintage cross-cultural people watching. A festive and sophisticatedly late buzz on weekend nights.

Weekdays, many of these revelers travel south on Hillcroft to partake of homelier amenities. In the 3300 block, they might duck into the starkly dubbed Bread & Pizza shop (or "Bread & Pzz," as its inscrutable sign would have it) to purchase enormous lengths of freshly baked barbari bread from a cheerful fellow named Mahsoud. Further south, just over the railroad tracks in the 5600 block of Hillcroft, the Iranian community shops the modest Super Vanak market for foodstuffs, fresh breads, surprisingly good pastries and such essential seasonings as sumac -- a lemony, crystalline spice that deserves to be better-known.

Sumac is what lends a haunting note to the irresistible ground-beef kebabs at the nearby Darband Kabobi, a chipper spot that's the quick-and-cheap equivalent of an Iranian sandwich shop. Well, not that quick: you'll have to wait for your kebab to finish its stint on the Lazy-Man grill, by which time it's often slightly overcooked. But the seasoning is so deft I never seem to mind.

Overgrilling does not afflict the ground-beef koubideh, which bursts with the flavor of its onion marinade and that tart, deep-red sumac. It sits on an oblong of Arab bread, dripping juice, crowded by lush, grilled tomato halves and bushy sprigs of basil, or even mint. The side dishes are dicier here: while there is a compelling species of slightly fermented vegetable pickle known as torshi to be had, the hummus is bitter and the cucumber-and-tomato Persian salad bland. But do sample the radically refreshing beverage called dough: pronounced "doog," this concoction of minted, iced yogurt splashed with lots of seltzer is a fine antidote to the Houston heat.

It tastes even better to the unexpected tune of a plashing indoor fountain (strewn with pennies, of course), which lends an oddball, gardenlike air to the streamlined blue-and-white interior. Ceiling fans suspended from a vaulted ceiling cool this clean, breezy room, which is presided over by a friendly Iranian proprietor who's apt to offer a complimentary pot of cardamom-perfumed tea while you wait. It is soothing, seductive stuff, to be sipped at leisure from clear glass cups. The regulars take it with cubes of sugar, as do the bearded gentlemen in towering, antique hats who populate the Persian tearoom depicted in a hanging print. Look around the restaurant -- Darband Kabobi's tables full of male tea-drinkers may be wearing designer denim and mustaches, but not much has really changed.

Across the street, behind the forbiddingly opaque facade of the misleadingly named Salt and Pepper restaurant, the stout of heart (and faint of wallet) can avail themselves of a five-buck steam-table buffet stocked with what surely must be Iranian mom food. Not exciting, just comforting and mostly good: a tomatoey stew of cauliflower and ground beef, perhaps; or a sprightly dish of eggplant, tomatoes and yellow split peas. Peppery, tender little green-herbed meatballs have considerable zip. Tandoori chicken (a concession to adjacent Little India?) does not. The braised saffron chicken's not much, either, but grilled lengths of ground-beef koubideh will do, and the tomato-laced vegetable pilaf will do even better. Nicest touch: crisp wedges of watermelon, a favorite Persian fruit.

Unless you are exceedingly fond of clear plastic vinyl and beat-up refrigerator cases piled with eggplants, you may want to pop an extra dollar and take your buffet booty home. Congratulations. You are now a card-carrying initiate of Little Persia -- you and Indian-born restaurant mogul Ghulam Bombaywala, of Marco's and Billy Blues fame, who dines at the Cafe Caspian every Friday night, and who has predicted to Ray Karr that 15 years from now, there'll be Persian restaurants all over the map.

Cafe Caspian, 2730 Hillcroft, 266-4900; Garson, 2926 Hillcroft, 781-0400; Darband Kabobi, 5670 Hillcroft, 975-8350; Salt and Pepper, 5621 Hillcroft, 783-9996; Super Vanak, 5692 Hillcroft, 952-7676; Bread & Pizza, 3330 Hillcroft, Suite C, 783-9898.

Cafe Caspian:
roasted eggplant dip, $3.50.

char-broiled quail, $10.95

Darband Kabobi:
ground-beef kebab, $3.95

Salt and Pepper:
Iranian buffet, $4.95

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