South Colorado Boulevard between Evans and Yale avenues is to Middle Eastern cuisine what Federal Boulevard is to Vietnamese. The variety of primarily Moroccan, Lebanese and Persian dishes to be found in eateries of various styles along this stretch is impressive enough, even before you add the markets, bakeries and hookah lounges. Like many of the Vietnamese restaurants on the west side of town, House of Kabob on the east side, stuck midway down a strip mall with a frighteningly bad parking situation, doesn't look like much, but the inside is tidy, mostly modern and decorated with a combination of tchotchkes and Lowe's Hardware home-improvement discount specials. The tile floors and light fixtures may seem a little dated (or at least low-budget), but at least an effort has been made to provide an environment that doesn't detract from the warm spices and savory stews found here.
Although the owner of House of Kabob is Lebanese, the kitchen offers a surprising number of lesser-known Persian dishes in addition to the grilled meats, hummus, baba ghanouj and falafel that have become favorites in the Middle Eastern canon. And on a recent visit, it was those Persian dishes that interested me, especially ones with black limes, which are sun-dried whole and then used to add flavor to certain soups and stews.
Piles of dirty snow in the parking lot didn't make jockeying for a space in the parking lot any easier; nor did drivers who didn't care about following a traffic pattern that clearly should have been one-way. But once we exited the car, we found the entire lot engulfed in the aroma of fruited tobacco wafting from several hookah lounges. We walked in, and House of Kabob's dingy stucco exterior gave way to a dark and cozy dining room with a few tables and a row of booths, of which only a few were occupied.
The host-waiter-bartender showed us to a booth and we wedged ourselves in; the space between the seat backs and the table edge was so tight that even a deep inhale proved difficult. I scanned the menu looking for "black lime" or "dried lime" and found it under a beef dish called ghorme sabzi. Wanting to stick with the Persian theme, we added an order of abgosht, another curry-like dish made with slow-cooked lamb.
The abgosht was the more familiar-tasting of the two, with a tangy tomato-based sauce, chunks of potato and a scattering of navy beans and extra-soft chick peas. The stew is sometimes made with dried lime, but it wasn't immediately apparent in House of Kabob's version. If anything, a tartness that could have come from fresh lime juice seemed to augment the tomato. A mix of spices gave the impression of a mild Indian curry and went well with the side of jasmine rice flecked with sumac powder.
The much more curious ghorme sabzi contained flavors harder to pin down. The inky sauce was laced with stewed spinach and gained its heft from shredded beef and kidney beans. Leeks and parsley added a fresh, herbal component. A lone sphere of something unidentifiable turned out to be the preserved lime, having turned a sandy tan color from its time in the sun; cutting the soft skin open revealed its black interior. The dish was unique, exotic and addictive, with a distinct note of lime peel, but without the sharpness or slight sweetness of fresh lime. An additional funky earthiness lingered behind the herbs and savory meat. While the photo doesn't do the dish justice (and the tight booth meant I could only take extreme close-ups), it was nevertheless a homely plate of food. But we finished every bite and then mopped up the sauce with rice in an attempt to teach our palates a new set of flavors. It was almost like seeing a new color that's never been described before.
Wine always helps bring out the subtler flavors of food, and fortunately House of Kabob also serves Lebanese beer, wine and arak (a grape-based distilled spirit flavored with anise). A glass of Lebanese cabernet balanced the dish nicely.
With the more familiar Lebanese specialties that are so common among Denver's Middle Eastern restaurants, quality isn't difficult to decipher. Hummus made with real olive oil and fresh lemon juice stands out from lesser, cheaply made versions. The hand of an expert grill master is evident in juicy, well-seasoned lamb and beef. Fresh herbs are easliy distinguishable from dried in falafel and tabbouleh. But when trying something completely new for the first time, the familiar gustatory signposts aren't there to guide the senses toward a decision on quality. The Persian specialties at House of Kabob may or may not have been the most traditional or flavorful representatives of age-old recipes — but the one sure sign is an empty plate at the end of a meal.