1712 Westwood Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90024
I will call it loyalty.
The entire Westside is so littered with Persian restaurants that somewhere, someone has to have referred to it as Persiatown. Or Little Tehran. In fact, there have got to be at least a half dozen restaurants concentrated along the north-south strip of Westwood Boulevard between Wilshire and Santa Monica. For all I know, there might even be an entire baker’s dozen, because the tiny holes in the wall don’t have English signs so I've always passed over them.
A dozen Persian restaurants on one street, more if you include the surrounding areas, and sadly, but truly, I have been to, but one. One Persian restaurant. I’ve eaten there about a half dozen times, enough times to have tried all the other places at least once, too, but no, I have only ever been to the one.
I like to call it loyalty. Loving devotion. An unfailing, unwavering allegiance to One.
Clearly, both of us have thesauruses. (Is it thesauri?)
Call it what you will – undying commitment…or childlike clingy-ness? zen-like confidence…or complacency? – but the fact of the matter is that when you have gone to “your first” and your first is “The One,” and love it as much as I do, why would I stray? Why would I need to try something else? Maybe the perfectionists are shaking their heads because they believe I am “settling.” No. I, too, am a perfectionist. I, too, never “settle.”
Others might say, “But Sarah, how do you know that what you have is what you want if you haven’t tried the rest to compare? How do you know you’re really happy with what you have? How do you know there isn’t something…better? How do you know?”
I just know. It is called Faith. It is not simply believing, but knowing. It is being so completely full and satisfied with what you have to the point of surfeited ecstasy that you know that there cannot, and is not, anything better. Impossible.
It is not an uneducated faith. It is not blind faith. I have tried Persian food before, and I am not counting "Middle Eastern" Freshman-15-contributing falafel at Eat-a-Pita in Berkeley or hummus and dolmeh from the salad bar at Whole Foods. I am talking about shish kobab, other grilled meats and rice that are typical in restaurants that are called “Persian.” I could never forget my true “first.” I remember it like it was this morning at 7:34 am. Reza’s. Chicago. Sarah and her merry band of computer camp nerds flown in on the company’s dime from all over the country. While Wisconsin and Minnesota and Florida were making faces at pomegranates and walnuts and strangely shaped meats on sticks because they’d only ever eaten TGI Friday’s at home and Thai Chicken Pasta at Cheesecake Factory in the big city was something new and unusual, I was rapidly falling head over heels in love with spices and flavors that were familiarly exotic. They didn’t finish everything on their plates because I finished it for them. It was my first taste of Persian, and I was smitten.
When I came back home to LA, I was overwhelmed by an Asian invasion. Little Tokyo! Chinatown! Koreatown! I even went so far as Little Saigon (which I didn’t love). I was wild. I was tramping about the ethnic neighborhoods of LA, a pretentious, self-satisfied, self-proclaimed Global Gourmet, who happened to never leave the 405 freeway. I had forgotten about the corner of the world that was in the right in the Middle of the westside, just East of my own backyard.
And then I found myself in front of Shamshiri Grill, slightly put off by what I consider a cheesy exterior adorned with strings of tiny white lights. Cheesy.
Falafel and hummus in college were good.
Reza’s after college was better.
Shamshiri Grill is the best.
I do not need to flirt with the other places along Westwood Boulevard. I do not need to wander off to the satellites on Santa Monica Boulevard. I do not need to see if there is something better. I have found my Persian place in this world. My charming, comfortably busy, semi-dark, candlelit but casual, Persian place in this world.
There are a few foods that are so common amongst Persian restaurants that truly, they can’t really be used as differentiator, not that I would compare anyway. Shirazi is a salad so simple I could re-create it at home – diced cucumber, tomatoes, onions, tossed together with a simply splash of lemon juice and olive oil. Some kitchens turn it out with chopped mint, but thankfully, Shamshiri uses parsley. Mint is for mojitos. And mouthwash.
Must o kheyar, like shirazi salad, is another food that tastes about the same everywhere, unless some place uses rank ingredients. I am not sure whether the yogurt combined with grated cucumber, garlic, and herbs, is a sauce, a dip/spread, or something to be eaten by itself. Whatever the case, must o kheyar falls into the category of “universal condiment” because, like soy sauce and sriracha, I put it in, on and stirred into everything. I do that with raita (Indian) and tzatziki (Greek), too.
Like Bambi on a strawberry frosted pop-tart high, I fawn over the rice. I don’t even like rice, but Persian rice is so different from the sticky, shiny short-grain Asian rice that I’ve eaten all my life. The plate comes to the table, a softly swelling pile, high and wide, of aromatic basmati rice. Each long, slender grain with a gentle curve is separate and distinguishable, some a pristine white, some a bright canary yellow. With steam sending up a heady fragrance, it’s clear that the rice needs no embellishment, but we do it anyway, don’t we, with the grilled tomatoes? With a fork, I press. The tiny red and black mottled water balloons gently explode their melted tomatine flesh over the rice, staining the yellow and white grains to a peach and pink as the sweet juice weeps down through the pile.
Is it just me, or do I need to cool down a little with that must o kheyer?
In general, I don’t get my tastebuds in a tangle over any beef other than a two-inch thick medium-rare steak with nothing but salt and pepper. Prime rib? *eh* Carne asada? ok. Galbee? I’m over it. Even with a burger, I am beginning to find myself disinterested in the actual burger, and increasingly charmed by the bun, cheese, and other toppings. When it comes to barg, though…well, I just don’t know where Shamshiri gets their beef, how they cut it into such , what sort of black market “herbs” they use to marinate it, or who chants spells of tenderness and flavor back there in their kitchen, but barg excites me in ways that might get me banned from the food blogosphere.
And now we come to koobideh. Oh, koobideh. Koobideh is the thing that gives me the certainty that Shamshiri is The One. There is no koobideh on LA’s Westside that is better than Shamshiri Grill’s chicken koobideh. There is no other place on LA’s Westside that can so cunningly seduce rich, deep flavor out of something as mild as chicken. No other restaurant can wrap ground meat around a skewer with so much love and understanding that even through the flame it holds together, and once out of the flame, is as tender as if it had been slow-poached in butter. For some reason, I feel a Tina moment coming on - simply the best - but I can’t say it. “Best” implies that there are others for comparison.
How do I know that there isn’t a longer, thicker, juicier skewer of ground chicken out there? How do I know?!?!
I don’t need to know. I have the koobideh I want, and that is enough. In this world, this is the koobideh for me, and I will only have a better koobideh if and when the Persian grandmother I never had makes it for me in her own home kitchen.
When will that be? Only she knows. And when that day of reckoning comes, well, who will I be to judge? For now, here in this Westside world that is my fated existence, I have faith in Shamshiri.
Who Else Ate at Shamshiri?
blogging.la - Authentic Persian Cuisine (Jan 2005)
The Travelling Hungry Boy - Shamshiri Grill, West LA (Jun 2005)
la.foodblogging - Meat and Rice (Aug 2005)
Zagat Who? - Persian! (Mar 2006)
Floss Daily - A Week of Gluttony (May 2006)
** a year ago today, i was an SAF seeking an SIF at dhaba **