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Under $5

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"Under $25" is the title of Eric Asimov's column about inexpensive restaurants in The New York Times. I have often mused that if we wanted to do the same sort of thing at the Houston Press, we would have to call it "Under $5" to get anybody to pay attention. Out on Hillcroft, you can feed your whole family for $25 and have enough change left over to take them to Dairy Queen for dessert. I should know, I do it all the time.

The assortment of Middle Eastern, Indian and Pakistani restaurants in the Hillcroft neighborhood can be daunting because of their sheer numbers. But all that competition is what keeps the quality high and the prices low. Some, like Garson and Ashoka Indian Restaurant, go the fine dining route and charge accordingly. But there are plenty of others that turn out excellent food in pleasant surroundings at prices that rival fast food franchises.

Take Darband Shish Kabob, for example. This Iranian kabob joint has to be one of the best deals in the city. The chengeh kabob, which includes two skewers of grilled lamb chunks served with onion, charbroiled tomato, fresh basil and parsley, scallions, radishes and hot-out-of-the-oven Iranian flat bread, sells for $4.95. On the recommendation of the guy at the cash register, I go for the "Darband Special." This includes one skewer of the lamb chunks and another of tender shish kebab (beef cubes), with the same tomato, herbs and flat bread. The combination is enigmatically priced ten cents cheaper at $4.85.

Info

Darband Shish Kabob

5670 Hillcroft

713-975-8350. Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Lamb kabob: $4.95
Shish kebab: $4.95
Darband Special (beef and lamb): $4.85
Chicken kabob: $5.45
Chel-o-kabob: $5.45
Hummus: 95 cents
Yogurt and cucumber: 95 cents
Pot of tea: $1.25

The beef kabobs come from a tender cut of steak, and they're grilled medium with some peppers and onions. The spicy lamb kabob is made with leg-of-lamb chunks, marinated in lemon and garlic and seasoned with sumac. Sumac is a bush with fuzzy red berries that grows wild in the Middle East as well as the northern part of the United States. The ground spice is dark purplish in color, and it tastes lemony. I prefer the zingier flavors of the lamb, but my daughter likes the beef.

She ordered the chicken kabob, which is a splurge at $5.45. The grilled fowl here is actually a whole Cornish game hen, which, contrary to popular belief, is not a game bird but simply a young chicken. It's seasoned with lemon and saffron, then nicely charred and served with lime wedges, plus all the same fixings as the other kabobs with plenty of hot flat bread on the side. We roll up bits of the meats and herbs in the bread, season them with sumac and eat them like Iranian tacos. It's a spectacular dinner for the money.

There are the usual fast food compromises, of course. The plates are Styrofoam, although if you eat in, you can get regular metal flatware -- not that there's much use for it. There's no beer, just a container full of soft drinks on ice at the front counter. The most common drink seems to be water anyway. And, obviously, there isn't any service: You help yourself to the forks, knives, sumac shakers, pitchers of ice water and clear plastic glasses.

The menu, which is displayed at the restaurant's walk-up counter, has only six items. There are photos of each dish for those of us who don't speak Farsi, and the proprietors are exceedingly helpful. You can also see the meats in a glass display case and watch your skewers being grilled on a long range behind the front counter. The bread comes from an Indian tandoor oven.

The walls of the restaurant are decorated with photos of the snow-covered mountains in the northern part of Tehran. This neighborhood, known as Darband, is one of Tehran's tourist attractions. Hiking trails that lead up to the mountains begin here, in the midst of an outdoor bazaar of shops. The dozens of kabob vendors and little restaurants there also make Darband a popular place to get a bite to eat.

"I adore the restaurant-lined twisted path that leads up the mountain. The sound of the flowing stream, combined with the smell of kabab, jeegar, and fruit-flavored hookas is truly intoxicating," wrote Siamak Namazi in an article called "Darband, Tehran's Junk Food Heaven" (The Iranian, April 21, 1999).

I am pretty sure that the Darband on Hillcroft is intended to be the Houston version of those fast food restaurants beneath the mountains north of Tehran. The 18 or so tables in the dining room are arranged around a central fountain that fills in for the babbling brooks of the foothills. The decorative tile pattern on the walls and red, green and blue neon around the ceiling give the place an imported look. "Since 1986," reads a slogan beneath the name of the restaurant and a map of Iran painted in the national colors on the front window.

Namazi went on to say that the fast food joints of Darband are among the only places in Tehran where Westernized Iranians, tourists and the devout mingle freely. And so it is at Darband Shish Kabob on Hillcroft.

The crowd on this Friday night looks like a United Nations convention. It's a particularly noisy throng, but the decibel level dips precipitously as a gorgeous, black-haired woman walks in the front door. She is wearing high heels, tight jeans and a top that shows a bare midriff and considerable cleavage. She exchanges glances with a table of women in traditional Muslim head coverings. And then the UN meeting gets back to arguing about football.

On our second visit, I get the lamb, and my daughter gets the beef. I try to talk her into the "chel-o-kabob," which is ground beef formed around a skewer then grilled and served on a bed of rice. I have no idea why the ground meat kabob costs more than the beef or lamb, or why it comes with white rice instead of the excellent flat bread. But she doesn't want the rice, so we skip it. This time, I also decide to invest 95 cents in a bowl of hummus and another of yogurt and cucumber dip, which I noticed in the display case up front. Like ketchup with McDonald's fries, these condiments add enormously to the flavor of our Iranian fast food dinner. We dip our flat bread in the hummus until our kabobs arrive and then use both hummus and yogurt as sauces on our Middle Eastern tacos. The people-watching this time consists primarily of a game of peekaboo with a two-year-old girl at the next table.

There is baklava for dessert, but we're too full. Instead, we kick back after dinner with a pot of hot tea -- something you can't do at McDonald's.

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