Metro Denver abounds with hummus and falafel, as well as other common dishes that get lumped into the "Middle Eastern" category and lose regional specificity. But traditional dishes from Iran are harder to come by. Complex and heavily herbal, Persian cuisine is an intoxicating balance of sour and savory, with deeply layered stews and succulent grilled meats offset by tangy yogurt dips and crunchy pickles. While there are overlaps with the food of neighboring countries, a true Persian meal is anything but generic. It’s also popular at the moment, in part because of Iranian-American Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat Netflix series and the accompanying award-winning cookbook.
More than 10,000 Iranians or Americans with ties to Iran live in the Denver area, according to estimates from the Colorado Chapter of the National Iranian American Council. Denver and the surrounding suburbs have a small selection of Persian restaurants, from white tablecloth to food-truck-and-tent, as well as an excellent international market. Here are four favorites, plus that amazing market if you want to create your own Persian feast at home.
Surena Persian Cuisine625 East Arapahoe Road, Centennial
Named after a historic commander who defeated the Romans in the first century B.C., Surena is the most upscale of Denver’s Persian offerings, and the hands-down favorite of local Iranians seeking a special night out. Located in a suburban strip mall, the restaurant is refined and sleek on the inside, with stone walls and a dramatic chandelier. Gracious service exemplifies the hospitality for which Iranians are famed. The wide menu covers most classic Persian dishes, including ghormeh sabzi, a rich stew of braised beef thickened with fried herbs and seasoned with dried lime. The signature Surena Kabob is a platter of grilled petite lamb chops. Generous portions of saffron-enhanced basmati rice accompany most entrees, along with a pat of butter and a dish of sumac powder for sprinkling over the fluffy grains. Specials you’re unlikely to find elsewhere include koofteh tabrizi — an oversized meatball made with yellow split peas and stuffed with walnuts, dried plum, dried apricot and a boiled egg. Unlike many other Persian places, Surena offers a full bar and a good selection of wine and spirits. Be sure to save room for the rosewater, pistachio and saffron ice cream. The restaurant is currently open for dine-in, patio seating, takeout and delivery.
Shondiz8000 East Quincy Avenue, Aurora
Downtown residents know Shondiz as the (currently closed) cart serving Turkish-style kabob on the 16th Street Mall, but the Quincy Avenue outpost is a less tiny and much more tasty surprise. This Shondiz touts "Good food fast. Not fast food," and has just expanded into the adjoining space (formerly a cobbler) that allows for distanced indoor dining. The small menu offers Persian barley soup and a full variety of kabob along with Turkish specialties like shawarma and döner sandwiches. The maast o khiar, a mint-flecked melange of creamy thick yogurt and crisp cucumber, is especially good. Fresh pita arrives soft and steamy, and the gormeh sabzi is studded with tender chunks of beef shoulder. Vice president of operations Mohammed Esmaeli has big plans, with another location on the drawing board. "People came in, and they thought we couldn't be good because we were so small," he says. "And then they'd order, and come back again and again." The Aurora location of Shondiz offers indoor and outdoor seating, takeout and delivery.
Babajoon’s Kabobs & More1005 West 120th Avenue, Westminster
Inside the curry- and cardamom-colored walls of Westminster's Babajoon's, diners will find a bright and beautifully decorated space with dark-wood tables and an intricately tiled tandoor oven, where traditional taftoon flatbread is shaped on a cushion and then slapped against the oven's interior to bake and puff against the red-hot walls. Charbroiled kabob arrive sizzling, along with strong black tea poured from an ornate silver samovar and garnished with fresh mint. Carnivores will appreciate the antibiotic-free meat and organic Norwegian salmon, while vegans have an assortment of tasty and generously proportioned options, including a savory stew of mushroom, eggplant and yellow split peas simmered in a rich tomato-based sauce. Don't miss the ornate selection of flaky and honey-drenched pastries. The welcoming staff is happy to explain the fresh and healthy menu to newcomers, who will surely return to this suburban gem. Babajoon's offers dine-in, patio, takeout and delivery service.
Ladan’s4435 South Santa Fe Drive, Englewood
Imagine if someone attached a tarp to a food truck, then brought in their grandfather's living room. That's the vibe at modest Ladan's, the newest entry to Denver's Persian dining scene. Located in a parking lot along an access road of South Santa Fe Drive, Ladan's is lacking in a few of the creature comforts (the restroom is next door in a repurposed convenience store), but is strong on traditional Persian cuisine. You'll find the usual options like kabob and hummus, but the real standouts are the slow-cooked specials like ghormeh sabzi and tart, unctuous fesenjan. Thickened with ground walnuts and balanced with puckery pomegranate molasses, this chicken stew is accompanied by steamed saffron rice to soak up the savory juices. Two sisters from Tehran (one a master chef) launched the food truck with hopes of eventually having a stand-alone restaurant. With food this delightful, hopefully that dream will soon come true. All of the seating is outdoors in a semi-permanent, well-furnished tent, and Ladan's also offers takeout and delivery.
Arash International Market2720 South Parker Road, Aurora
Home cooks will find a treasure trove of ingredients at Arash International Market, which has been serving the community for more than thirty years. The produce department is packed with well-priced fruits and vegetables, as well as generous bunches of dill, cilantro and parsley that are such an integral part of Persian cuisine. Halal lamb, beef and chicken are offered, along with a huge assortment of cheeses, olives, dried fruits and nuts. Pro tip: When pomegranates are in season (from September to November, and sometimes longer), Arash has the lowest prices to be found.