Past a Subway sandwich shop, a Qdoba and a Tokyo Joe's, Babajoon's Kabobs doesn't exactly stand out in its Westminster strip-mall home. And on a March Madness weekend, the parking lot is packed with the cars of college basketball fans headed to the Hooter's next door (at least, I assume that's the draw.) There doesn't appear to be much room for a specialty restaurant like Babajoon's to attract its own customer base, but the place seems busy enough, with most of the patio tables filled and customers scattered around the dining room, too. And almost every order that the staff brings out contains multiple add-ons: plates of stuffed grape leaves, mounds of fluffy jasmine rice, platters of grilled meats atop flatbread so fresh that you can smell the steam as the understaffed crew glides between the tables to waiting customers.
There are only three staffers: a cashier taking orders and running food; a baker fashioning flatbread from balls of dough and tending a formidable, tile-clad oven with sure-handed moves; and the owner himself, manning the grill and expediting plates. So the "fast" element of the fast-casual equation doesn't seem likely to come into play once we've given the menu on the wall a thorough reading and made our selections. But that's not a problem on a weekend afternoon when I'm perfectly content watching the built-in entertainment of the tandoor-style oven and the Persian taftoon bread being baked inside.
The oven sits cocked at an angle like a colorful cannon behind a glass wall for easy viewing from the dining area. The baker works balls of dough into plate-sized rounds and then places them, one at a time, on a paisley pillow that he uses to press the dough against the inner wall of the oven. The dough adheres and bakes quickly. The baker uses a long, pointed implement to remove the finished flatbread before it chars completely; each one emerges with a unique pattern of scorching and blistering.
Our orders — a plate of kubbideh kabob and the day's special, lamb shank — both come with taftoon, so the anticipation builds as the baker works his way through the multiple order tickets that have stacked up. When our plates arrive, the bread is the first thing I reach for, curious about its texture and similarity to other flatbreads from the Middle East and from India, where pita and naan, respectively, are made in similar fashion. Taftoon made in this traditional manner is thinner and crisper than either of those, with the side that comes in direct contact with the oven wall almost cracker-like in its crispness, while the opposite side is soft and bready.
My lamb shank arrives doused in a tomato-based sauce, almost a broth; the taftoon makes a great vehicle for mopping it up and for conveying bites of lamb. The lamb itself is so tender that it actually begins to fall from the bone as soon as the server sets the bowl down, with nothing but the force of gravity to dislodge it. There's also a separate plate with jasmine rice and a simple salad pepped up with a dressing of lemon juice and dried herbs.
Amy's kubbideh is finely ground beef formed into an elongated shape and flame-grilled on wide, flat skewers. The grind is much finer than what's typical in hamburgers or meatballs, giving the kabob a dense texture that remains juicy and just a bit pink in the center. Garlic and herbs add additional flavor, and a side of yogurt sauce similar to Greek tzatziki give tangy brightness. The taftoon is perfect for wrapping around bites of kabob and dunking in the yogurt.
We were among the last in a small rush of customers, so as we ate, the owner came out to check on our meals. He apologized for the wait for our food (which really wasn't long at all), and explained that business has been good but that cooks are hard to find. Signs in the front window of the store advertising available jobs accentuated his point.
Unlike some of the other Middle Eastern eateries I've visited this month, Babajoon's doesn't package the culture of Iran in anything other than its food. A towering set of carved doors that serve as room dividers offers one of the few hints of Persian art in the space, and the music in the background is quiet and generic. The food, though, gives a pure glimpse of Persian market fare, from the seasoned and skewered meats grilled over an open flame, to the few homey touches in the stewed dishes on the daily specials list. None of the food seems dumbed-down for American tastes (shakers of sumac powder are beside the salt and pepper on the table), and there are no intrusions from other regions (fans of hummus and gyros will have to look elsewhere).
With all the other fast-casual joints and themey chain restaurants, this particular suburban shopping center looks like it could easily be in Lakewood, Parker or Littleton. But the fresh-made and flavor-packed food from Babajoon's kitchen is distinctive and noteworthy enough to draw visitors from around the city. And for those who live in the neighborhood, it's a welcome change from the cookie-cutter corporate mold that relies on the comfort of familiarity more than the quality of the food.
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