Got a call from lunch pal Bill Bronston, raving about the Tak Food Market, a small Persian market-restaurant in a teeny strip mall in Carmichael.
"Culturally, it's an island, the real thing," he said.
The retired physician is a big player in Sacramento, the impassioned founder of Tower of Youth, the Digital Arts Studios Partnership and the Youth Broadcast & Media Association. Their aggregate goal is to "organize teens to manufacture culture, ideas, relationships and community through digital media and the arts," he said.
Over the past decade, he has been responsible for persuading media-technology manufacturers to donate about $2 million in hardware and software to regional teachers and students all in the name of advancing digital art forms and expanding their presence in science, history, math and the like.
He calls it "21st century school transformation."
More to the point here, he's a world traveler who has "eaten a lot of Mediterranean food. We've been to Morocco, Syria, Jordan and Egypt, and very much want to go to Iran."
Tak is a discovery, one of those ethnic restaurant- grocery stores that operate under the mainstream radar until someone outside the culture tastes the food.
Then get out of the way. Currently, half the customer base is Iranian, along with percentages of Egyptians, Vietnamese, Latinos and Anglos.
You'd be hard-pressed to meet a more gracious couple than husband-wife co-owners Majid and Forouzan Foroutan. They immigrated to the U.S. from Iran in 1977, settling in Chicago before relocating in Sacramento in 2004.
"The greatest thing about (the business) is I am with my wife all the time," Majid Foroutan said. "We are a very good team. We are showing in our relationship communication, respect and hard work. Our customers compliment us on these things. They say we give them energy. But the No. 1 thing we are doing here is introducing our culture and food."
We cruised the aisles and shelves of the Tak market, crowded with imported goods bags of basmati rice and whole-grain bulgur wheat, bottles of rose water and avocado oil, jars of fig jam and tahini (sesame seed paste), packets of fennel seeds, dill weed, cinnamon and cardamom.
Art and music CDs are for sale, along with "creamy rose" ice cream. On one shelf was the Alpha Ring Game "The Exciting New Way to Learn the Persian Alphabet."
The restaurant menu is brief but intense beef, lamb, chicken, salmon and tofu kebabs (and a hot dog kebab), and lamb chops ($4.99 to $14.99). All the meats and the tofu are marinated and grilled over charcoal, and served with long-grain basmati white and saffron rice.
The catering side of the business offers many more dishes not on the menu; ask about them.
Forouzan Foroutan does most of the cooking (except the outdoor over-charcoal part) and wields a well-stocked repertoire of traditional Iranian dishes.
Does she ever stand still? She grew up learning the secrets of the kitchen from her mother and grandmother, as is often the case with the matriarch at small, family-run restaurants. The recipes were passed from one generation to the next, starting with both of the couple's great-grandmothers.
We began with glasses of "seed water," a mix of oily chia seeds and mint syrup in ice-cold water. The result is a slightly viscous, super- refreshing drink.
"We have other flavor options (including) pomegranate and lime," Majid Foroutan said.
Soon, our table was crowded with fragrant dishes. We used warmed crunchy-soft stone-baked flatbread sprinkled with toasted sesame and poppy seeds to mop up the last of the delicate soup called "ash reshteh." This version held thin noodles, beans, lentils, mint, fried onion, leek, parsley, cilantro and tumeric, and was topped with yogurt cream.
Next time, we'll get the pomegranate soup, as well.
The cold potato-chicken salad was unlike any we'd tasted. Though simple in construct chicken, potato, pickled Persian cucumber, mayonnaise, lime juice, salt and pepper the creamy-crunchy texture was welded to remarkable flavors.
The well-seasoned grilled lamb kebab and juicy lamb chops were tender and rich, complemented by alternating forkfuls of perfectly cooked basmati rice.
The last item on the table was a bowl of house-made yogurt studded with chopped shallots.
"This is our best-selling dish," Majid said. "I will tell you that 99 percent of the people who touch this get hooked, so be careful."
The yogurt was rich, thick and very tangy, with a backdrop of mild onion flavor a must-have for yogurt purists ($5.99 a pound).
Bill and I looked at our empty plates and smiled.
"This is beyond cooking; it's an art form," he said. "Why doesn't normal food taste like this?"
Hmm. Perhaps we had found a "new normal."
TAK FOOD MARKET
Where: 9045 Fair Oaks Blvd., Carmichael (at the intersection with San Juan Avenue)
Hours: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 10 a.m.- 4 p.m. Sunday
Food: ★ ★ ★ ★
Ambience: ★ ★ ★ ★ for purists, ★ ★ for tourists
How much: $-$$
Information: (916) 944-3188, www.takfoodmarket.com