1556 Fifth Avenue, San Diego
"Ohmygod, it's Omar...again!" This is me, standing under a big poster on the wall here at Darband's.
"Which Omar would that be?" says Hank.
"Who else, bro? Omar Khayyam."
"Oh Lord. 'The bird of time...short distance to fly...' I should've guessed."
This is a Persian place, after all. Hank likes 'em 'cause of their fresh everything, salad-wise, and fire-cooked meats, easy on the oils.
We look up at the poster. There's the great old wine-loving mystic and mathematician with his words floating out and women dancing to them below.
Of course, the words're in Persian script. Big, flowy, backwards.
"Uh, what does it say?" I ask Tony, the owner.
"It says, 'Everything passes.' You must enjoy your life while you can. That was his philosophy."
I followed Hank in here 'cause he needs to eat before taking his little old mom to choir practice. We parked beside this maroon awning and strode into a patio with climbing vines growing up the sides and flowers hanging along the front.
A group of men stood around one of the outside tables, throwing dice into a box. Huh. Backgammon. They make the place feel genuine. Inside, it seemed to be all men too, sitting 'round the dozen tables. On the left wall they have a grocery section, shelves filled with rice and spices for sale. The high counter and kitchen are at the end. That's where, for the second time in a month, we find ourselves staring at our old friend Omar Khayyam.
Tony hands us menus. We sit down with them. Only now do we notice the four-foot-wide plasma TV, the pretty pictures of places like Persepolis and Esfahan, ancient capitals of Persia, on the walls.
"Quick," Hank says. "I can't be late."
I look hard at the menu. Yes, the words are foreign -- "Koobideh Kabob," and "Shirazi," and "Baghali Polo," but when I think about it, the foods aren't that different, even though they seem exotic. "Koobideh Kabob" is ground sirloin cooked on a skewer, with salad and rice. "Shirazi" is chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, and parsley in olive oil and lemon juice. From Shiraz, the Poets' Capital, one Iranian friend told me. Also a famous grape, right? And "Baghali Polo" is...baked chicken. With different sauces, and not cooked like the Colonel's, for sure, but what can be strange about baked chicken?
And hey, look at the atlas. They're on the same latitude as us.
"Now," orders Hank, when the guy comes.
"You first," I say.
He looks up at the waiter. "Number 13."
I race to see what it is. "Khoresh Bademjan." Baby eggplant stew. "Sautéed baby eggplant, beef, homemade tomato sauce, and special seasoning served with basmati rice, $9.95."
It's the daily special for today, which is Thursday. I love eggplant.
"Oh, I'm low. Can't pay for you," Hank says, without looking up.
Jeez. This was his idea. Good thing I didn't blurt out some expensive dish like Number 22, "Barg," marinated beef tenderloin with rice and charbroiled tomato, $13.95. Even the vegetarian plate is $8.95 (though a veggie wrap's $5.95).
So now I'm looking at salads (around six or seven bucks) and kabobs (the menu "highly recommends" number 40, the "Chicken Shish Kabob, $7.45," which is boneless chicken with grilled onions, green peppers, tomato, and sauce in lavash bread).
But wait: they also have these "mini plates." Mini chicken kabob with a skewer of chicken, salad and rice ($7.95), or the same, but with ground sirloin ("Mini Koobideh, $6.95"), or chunks of filet mignon ("Mini Shish Kabob, $7.95").
"Now," says Hank. "Or never."
"Okay, okay. Koobideh kabob," I tell the waiter. I can get through ground sirloin quicker than chewy chunks of meat, and Hank's gonna be gone, in about five flat.
But the "mini" tag worries me. How mini?
Hey hey! Our plates are both, like, bi-i-ig. Hank's eggplant stew comes in an oval dish set on a larger plate with a big salad, with another little pot of shirazi salad.
My "mini" koobideh is a beautiful-looking plate of basmati rice with saffron-colored rice sprinkled on top, a salad at one end, pita bread, lemon, a long de-skewered kabob of ground beef, and a grilled Anaheim pepper that's just as big as the kabob. What a seven-buck deal, and not in polystyrene boxes as I expected. Really, these dishes look as good as anything you'll find in the Gaslamp.
My beef's marinated, and the giant chili gives a modest amount of heat. And when we do some exchange, Hank's stew goes down tangy and warm, as if the beef and eggplant have had plenty of time to get acquainted. Slow-cooked, I'm guessing. Great with the rice. The salad has chunks of mango in it, too. Cool.
Oh Lord. They have desserts like rosewater ice cream and saffron rice pudding and passion fruit mousse. But Hank's already heading for the counter to pay his part of the bill.
"What does 'Darband' mean?" I ask Tony -- he's Iranian -- while I fork over my Jefferson. (I also got a bottle of Perrier, $1.50 -- I know, but it's about the cheapest drink here.)
"Darband is a beautiful valley, a resort in the mountains north of Tehran," he says.
Has he been back?
"Not for 20 years."
"That's too bad."
"Don't worry," says Tony. "I will."
He looks up at old Omar Khayyam's words. "Everything passes."