Aromatic steam rises from a bowl of saffron-stained basmati rice; more steam escapes from the dark, thick sauce pooled around a chicken drumstick in a separate bowl. The steam scents the cool air inside a big tent erected in a potholed parking lot off South Santa Fe Drive, adding to the already heady smells of cooking coming from the window of the food truck to which the tent is attached.
This is a strange place to find fesenjan, a Persian stew made with ground walnuts, pomegranate, chicken and a mélange of mysterious spices that adds complexity to the sweet, sour and nutty dish. But Ladan and Elnaz Azizi, sisters from Iran, are so passionate about serving the food of their home country that the location hardly matters. Indeed, stepping into the tent that serves as the dining room for Ladan's Restaurant, set up in the midst of a sea of used cars on an access road paralleling Santa Fe, feels like you're walking into the family's living room. Along with a few tables and comfortable couches for customers, the space holds coffee tables, ornate floor lamps and room dividers (some made from stained glass windows), a chess board and an assortment of Persian decorations. Friends of the sisters and other family members chat in Farsi at a central table while they tally receipts and review business documents.
One of those friends, a young man who declines to give his name (primarily to keep the spotlight on the restaurant's owners), explains that Ladan Azizi was a master chef in Iran before moving to Colorado, and that her goal has been to make enough money with the food truck and a catering business to open a full-service restaurant. But in the meantime, he notes, she's making the most of these odd surroundings in order to offer a true Persian experience, complete with sheltered outdoor eating, which is a big part of dining out at restaurants in Iran.
The menu at Ladan's focuses on kebabs, served either on platters alongside rice and grilled vegetables, or in sandwiches built on French baguettes and sided with fries. You'll see familiar appetizers such as hummus, baba ganoush, falafel, dolmehs and even fries, but nearly everything has an extra element or layer of flavor. The dolmehs are similar to the stuffed grape leaves you'll find at Greek or Middle Eastern restaurants, but here they're dusted with an herb blend that includes dried rose petals. In the depths of a snowy February, these dolmehs are served with blueberries, an uncommon accompaniment but one likely substituting for pomegranate seeds, which are hard to come by in Denver after December. The chef's instincts are unfailing, though, as the berries add a tart, fruity counterpoint to the salty grape leaves.
For a fast and filling lunch, kebabs do the job, whether they're koobideh (seasoned ground beef), chenjeh (cubes of marinated lamb) or joojeh (grilled chicken meatballs). Better still, if you have time, are the daily specials of slow-cooked Persian dishes uncommon in Denver restaurants. The fesenjan, for example, pairs impossibly tender chicken with a thick, rich sauce that balances the tartness of pomegranate with bittersweet walnuts. The nuts are ground and mixed into the sauce to thicken it, but also show up as generous halves that lend crunch to the dish. A side of cucumber-studded yogurt called maast o khiar (which can also be ordered as an appetizer) brightens up the fesenjan and comes topped with more of the crumbled rose petals.
Outside the tent, a Persian man shovels snow away from its entrance (a swinging door that adds a sense of permanence to the setup), but inside, propane heaters keep the air just warm enough for comfort. The chef looks out onto her dining room from the food-truck window, her hair tied back in a red bandanna. The collision of heat, chill and steam creates vortexes of aroma throughout the space, making the thought of exiting into the wan winter afternoon less than appealing. Fortunately, strong-brewed black tea and baklava are available, and perfect for a quick move from table to couch.
Just beyond the snow-blanketed parking lot, Santa Fe shunts commuters from downtown Denver to Englewood and Littleton. Cars zip past on the wet pavement, creating a haze in the air. Drivers and passengers barely notice the rows of warehouses, the adult bookstores, the tire shops as they zip past. But perhaps someone looks out a slush-spattered window, sees the bright-red tent and the Ladan's Restaurant sign promising "the best Persian food in town," and slows down, trying to figure out which exit to use to reach the only Persian cuisine for miles in any direction.
Ladan's might not be easy to get to, but once you arrive, the reality of excellent Persian cuisine will make it difficult to leave.
Ladan's is located at 4435 South Santa Fe Drive (use the South Natches Court access road) and is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day but Monday. Call 720-695-6592 or visit ladansrestaurant.com for more details.