Carla Meyer

‘New Persian’ spot Grills & Greens thrills with secret spices, sauce

The Borani yogurt dip at Grills & Greens.
The Borani yogurt dip at Grills & Greens. Carla Meyer

Rancho Cordova’s Grills & Greens, a year-old “new Persian” spot that serves falafel as fresh and herbaceous as one is likely to get anywhere, shares a building with a Subway sandwich shop. But not the drive-through. That’s just for Subway.

One building over from Grills & Greens are the girls, girls, girls! of Pure Gold gentlemen’s club, and the burgers and tacos of South Beach Grill, an American and Mexican (but not Cuban) restaurant named after the famous Miami neighborhood.

This small stretch of Sunrise seems to dare all other small stretches of Northern California suburban boulevards to out-unique it. Things grow even more intriguing inside Grills & Greens, a surprisingly cozy space, outfitted with sofas as well as tables and chairs, that serves consistently flavorful food, fast, and at a high degree of value.

Grills & Greens, open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. weekdays, is busiest at lunchtime, when women and men in business suits line up at the counter next to guys in work uniforms, all waiting for 7-inch gyro sandwiches filled with juicy beef and chicken cooked on a vertical rotisserie. The chicken gyro costs $6.99, the beef a dollar more. Each comes with choice of house-made condiment (spicy-mango and yogurt-cucumber sauce among them) as well as fresh greens, tomato, Persian pickles and parsley.

Behind the serving line where sandwiches and salads are made to order, a Grills & Greens kitchen staffer plunks fresh eggplant pieces into the deep fryer, from which the eggplant later will emerge tenderized so it can be mashed, along with caramelized onions, into an earthy-sweet Persian dip.

At the production line’s end, restaurant owner Syamak Shabani helps put together orders on trays for customers as his wife, Bing Li, operates the register.

Shabani always keeps an eye on the door, looking for newcomers. For those first-timers, he offers samples of chicken, beef and the house-made condiments. If the beef – its wonderfully fatty-salty-peppery flavor suggesting some drippings never made it down the vertical spit – does not convince a first-timer to stay, the tangy yogurt-cucumber sauce will.

The line moves swiftly, as it must, since people are on lunch breaks from nearby government offices, or big-box stores or auto dismantlers. Shabani, born in Iran but raised in Dubai, owned restaurants, including Quiznos franchises, in his adoptive home country.

Shabani knows fast food’s pace, and pricing, and has positioned Grills & Greens as a fresher alternative, making everything in-house but the super-sized pita bread (which, though it tastes fresh enough, is the least remarkable aspect of the Grills & Greens experience). Though Shabani would seem to be in competition with the adjacent Subway, he’s friends with the owner, Shabani said. That friendship helped inspire Shabani, who previously lived in Southern California, to come north and open Grills & Greens.

Shabani’s fast-food background also shows in his guarding of some ingredients as proprietary, a la the herbs and spices in KFC’s original recipe. Regarding the marinade that goes on his chicken and beef, Shabani revealed to The Bee only that it is dairy-based, and that the finished product involves lemon and salt and pepper.

Dairy, huh? We’ll rule out whipped cream and chocolate milk, since the meat does not taste sweet, and venture that the ingredient is yogurt, since it’s elsewhere on the menu.

Regarding the herb that gives Shabani’s stellar, also-secret-ingredient falafel its distinctive floral flavor, we’re clueless. The leeks and bell pepper Shabani acknowledges as ingredients – in cakes already remarkable for their fresh-chickpea taste – are not it.

Nor is cumin. Though it’s part of many a falafel, Shabani doesn’t use it. He calls his restaurant “new Persian” because he incorporates American (mostly in the salads) and Arab (pita, vertical spit) elements. But his falafel adheres to Persian cuisine, which uses more herbs than spices, he said.

Once one has moved past the counter and into the roomy dining area to settle into a sofa, ingredients matter less than how good almost everything tastes. The borani yogurt dip, loaded with blanched spinach, kale and chard, alternates cream and crunch and offers one of the world’s easiest vegetable-consumption delivery methods. There’s also the slightest hint of crunch in the hummus, its chickpea component tarted up slightly by the sumac atop it.

Mad about the falafel, we ordered it in nearly every combination the menu offered. The falafel and eggplant dip, however, flopped together in ways they did not apart, their flavors competing. Same with the falafel and borani, the previous pairing’s equal in price ($8.99) and incompatibility.

The best combination was falafel and hummus. The most appropriate dip for the fried cakes altogether, however, is Grills & Greens’ tahini. Made from sesame paste and roasted garlic, its hint of bitterness enlivens the falafel’s mystery herb. But although tahini comes on the falafel sandwich, and rice plate, it is not offered as snack combination. One must order a cup of it separately, though at the reasonable rate of 50 cents per cup.

Salads ($6.49-$8.49, plus $3 for meat or falafel) are large and full of fresh greens. But the kale-and-quinoa salad was dry, overly chewy and nearly tasteless apart from a hint-of-bitter finish. In other words, it contained raw, unvarnished kale. Things improved once the excellent house-made Caesar dressing, which had been served on the side, worked its way into the greens.

We preferred the sandwiches, including a summer-perfect, texturally complex walnut, Persian cucumber and feta offering. Sandwiches come wrapped in paper (and whole, and sometimes unwieldy, so ask for them to be cut in half) and on trays, if dining in. When ready to go, you simply clear off trays into trash receptacles, fast-food style.

It’s easy in, easy out at Grills & Greens, unless there’s a birthday or retirement party back at the office. Then you’ll want to stop back by the counter to order the borani or eggplant dip to go. They come in 16-ounce containers, with two pieces of bread, for $9.99.

They taste better and fresher than anything you’ll get at the supermarket, and will allow you to spread the word about delicious, bargain international food served in between a Subway and a strip club – a spot as mixed-use, and American, as it gets.

Grills & Greens

3040 Sunrise Blvd., Rancho Cordova, 916-853-2265

Hours: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Friday. Noon-7 p.m. Saturday.

Beverage options: Sodas and iced and hot tea.

Vegetarian friendly: Yes

Gluten-free options: Yes

Ambiance: For a counter-service, mostly lunch place specializing in quick service, it’s roomy and comfortable, with sofas as well as tables and chairs.

Overall

The food is good and inexpensive. Service is fast and the place is welcoming.

Food

The gyro sandwiches come with plenty of peppery, tender meat and fresh accompaniments including greens, tomato and parsley, for less than $8. The falafel are delightfully herbaceous, and the hummus, borani (spinach, kale, chard and yogurt dip) and eggplant are exceptional. The salads we tried underwhelmed, but the house-made Caesar dressing offers a good balance of flavors.

Service  1/2

Very minimal, since you order and receive food at the counter, but friendly, and most important, fast.

Value

The 7-inch-long chicken and beef gyro sandwiches, at $6.99 and $7.99, are the best value, but those 16-ounce Persian eggplant and borani dips one can take to go also are good deals. They’re better and fresher than what you can get at the supermarket.

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