Allen Pierleoni

Counter Culture: Taste the foods of Iran and Vietnam on a mini-tour

The enthusiastic notion of Sacramento as the Farm-to-Fork Capital of America got an overwhelming endorsement in September with the well-attended Farm-to-Fork Week, a program of food-related festivities. By now, it’s widely know that it culminated in a $175-a-plate multicourse meal for 600 folks on the Tower Bridge (the pigeons proved a non-problem).

Let’s add another food-centric thought about our city: One of the bonuses of its ethnic diversity is the abundance of family-owned restaurants that serve a United Nations of cuisines. Part of the pleasure of dining at ethnic restaurants is the exploration factor – experimenting, asking questions, discovering new dishes – though we’ve found that closing our eyes and pointing at the menu has worked well, too.

When we walked into Saffron Grill and found a table, the reactions of the two lunch pals were immediate.

No. 1: “Don’t we love it when it smells this good!”

No. 2: “How nice that a Cooking Channel show is on the TV instead of sports.”

Onscreen, a chef demonstrated how to make coconut tiramisu, but we’ll bet that the orange peel-flecked and saffron ice creams we tasted are better desserts.

But let’s back up. Taraneh Nikoumanesh and her husband, Akbar Rouholiman, came to the United States from Iran in 1998 and opened Saffron a year ago. They prepare from-scratch Persian cuisine largely from recipes handed down from Taraneh’s grandmothers, mother and aunts. No, the couple did not have a restaurant in Iran; they’re new to this, but you wouldn’t know it. The dining room is clean and orderly, the main dishes cooked to order, the hospitality welcoming. You can slowly savor a delicious meal and linger afterward over cups of hot Persian tea.

“I come from a cooking family, and all Persians know these (items on the menu),” Taraneh said on the phone days later. “How they taste is different (from cook to cook), depending on the way you make them.” The celebrity chefs on the Cooking Channel would agree.

If you name your restaurant after the world’s most expensive spice, you’d better deliver the goods. Saffron does. “We use saffron in everything – in all the stews, in salad, as a marinade and in sauces on top of chicken, beef and lamb,” Taraneh said.

The menu lists the ingredients in each dish, helpful when navigating unfamiliar territory. Given the quality of ingredients, we thought the pricing is fair ($3 to $22, for a combination plate).

We began with fresh-tasting hummus (ground and mashed garbanzo beans) mixed with tahini (sesame paste), accented with lemon juice, garlic, pepper and other seasonings, one of the best versions we’ve tasted. We used warm wedges of lightly seasoned taftoon bread (like pita) to scoop up the hummus, and did the same with another dish, chilled homemade yogurt mixed with cucumber and dried mint. We spooned globs of each atop the perfectly cooked basmati rice that paired with the entrees.

Every restaurant should have a house salad this good: fresh, cold lettuce, cabbage, cucumber, onion, herbs and feta cheese mingled with creamy yogurt dressing for bursts of refreshment.

“Crispy rice” was substantial shards of hard-fried crunchy rice, which could not be penetrated with a fork. Instead, we tore off pieces and ate them with the world’s most useful utensils – our fingers. The dish was all texture and little flavor, though. “This needs to be either softer so you can cut it with a fork or harder so it breaks off easier,” said one lunch pal.

The sauce that accompanied the crunchy rice is called “ghormeh sabzi,” a savory “stew” of herbs and kidney beans with sun-dried lime. It helped the crunchy rice, certainly, but was so good on its own that we spooned it on the basmati rice.

Garlic mint chicken was the star of the show. Chunks of tender, juicy chicken breast are marinated in yogurt, garlic and mint, skewered and grilled until golden in color.

“Gheymeh” is beef stew that refines the template. Small pieces of sautéed beef are cooked with split peas, onion and saffron-spiked tomato sauce, then topped with thin, crisp slivers of potato. Yep,we spooned it on top of the basmati rice, too.

We also sampled sweet-crunchy lentil salad (lentils, beet, onion, parsley, saffron dressing); an elegant white-meat chicken salad made crunchy with chopped walnuts and veggies; and an odd but tasty dish of whey (a dairy product), eggplant, onion and fresh mint. We wanted to taste the saffron-seasoned lamb chop kabob, but the chops wouldn’t arrive till the next day.

Baklava is traditionally layers of crisp phyllo pastry on top of chopped walnuts and honey. Saffron’s homemade baklava is offered with mildly flavored apple and almond fillings, but, for our taste, the pastry was soggy and lacked texture.

For less adventurous diners who are more comfortable in the mainstream, there’s a burger (dashed with saffron dressing, of course) and garlic fries. But why go there?

Pho, and nothing but pho

Stockton Boulevard is lined with restaurants, most of them Vietnamese. Like Persian cuisine, Vietnamese dishes call for plenty of fresh produce, a healthful bonus.

My lunch pal (a veteran Asia traveler) and I were looking for pho (pronounced “fuh”), the beef noodle soup that’s the national dish of Vietnam. We found some – 11 versions – at Pho Anh Dao along with the surprise of five chicken-based phos.

There were a couple of other surprises, too. The only items on the menu are those phos. No spring rolls, green papaya salad, catfish in a clay pot or lemon grass-accented chicken. Just pho ($6.50-$7.75) and 17 beverages. Also, the restaurant has no phone and takes cash only.

If a place says it specializes in pho, the rightful expectation is for exceptional soup. Well ... we dashed squirts of hoisin and soy sauces into the beef broth to add kick to the bowl of rice noodles and slices of rare steak. Good enough, though we’ve had better.

We ordered “dark meat chicken” in the second pho and got mostly gristle. The rich broth, shredded cilantro, basil leaves and the al dente rice and egg noodles (we ordered half and half) nearly made up for that. If there’s a next time, we’ll try the “white meat chicken,” in anticipation of a steaming bowl of chicken breast noodle soup to chase away the winter blues.

Pho Anh Dao, 6830 Stockton Blvd., Sacramento, in the Little Vietnam Plaza; open daily 9:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m., or until the kitchen runs out of pho.