Longtime South Florida residents know that many dining treasures lurk in drab and uninspiring environs. Simply put, don’t judge a restaurant by its strip mall. The latest proof is tucked in a corner of a worn Sunrise shopping center, across the street from Hooters and a strip club. Kababi Café by Kuluck is an utterly delightful surprise, a taste of Tehran in western Broward. When diners walk in, they are transported to another world, with a pleasant spice scent drifting across the lounge area and large dining room. It is a mellow aroma, not as pungent as Indian curry, but exotic enough to let your nose know that you are in for something different. The kebabs, stews and aromatic rice dishes could be mistaken for Turkish, but many are flecked with sweet and sour fruits favored in Persian cuisine, including pomegranates, raisins, cherries and barberries.
Each table has a wide shaker of sumac, a powdery crimson dust that brings a tart and almost lemony zest to all it is showered upon. Slightly sweet grape leaves ($7.95) are stuffed with rice and mint. Braised lamb shank ($17.95) is served with fluffy saffron basmati rice, tinted green from soft lima beans and wisps of finely chopped fresh dill. The wonderful trio platter ($32.95) features grilled rows of trimmed tenderloin that looks like skirt steak, herbed ground beef and marinated chunks of white-meat chicken or, for $5 more, bone-in pieces of succulent Cornish hen. The food is flavorful without being overpowering, showcasing spice without sweat-inducing spiciness.
Hamid Shirdel, a veteran Broward restaurateur and Iran native who opened Kababi Café in 2014, describes Persian cuisine as “middle of the road.” The meats are halal, and no pork is served, and there are many options for vegetarians. Persian food is a blend of the many influences found in a cradle-of-civilization country in the Middle East that is not Arabic (Farsi is the dominant language). Empires and shahs have come and gone, replaced by ayatollahs and upheaval and a U.S. designation as being part of an “Axis of Evil,” but warmth, hospitality and strong family bonds are the hallmarks of Persian culture.
And so it is at Kababi Café, where Shirdel’s 26-year-old daughter, Chelsea, works the front of the house, and his 83-year-old father can be found cleaning up and helping out during the daily lunch buffet. Service is gracious and friendly, and our non-Middle Eastern server dutifully ran to the kitchen to get our questions answered when they arose. “Very good order,” he complimented after our crew selected a wide range of dishes. Each was very good. Nothing went amiss. When space began getting tight at our square four-top table, he opened up collapsible leaves that expanded it into a circle. That’s my kind of place.
Our server cheerfully suggested packing some housemade roulette cake to go when a member of our party was feeling tired, and we declined dessert. I’m glad he did, because the traditional Persian sponge cake ($6), with circular layers rolled around sweet cream and rosewater, traveled well from the car into my belly.
The restaurant is big and comfortable, 6,000 square feet with nearly 200 seats, divided between the main dining room, where belly dancers perform on weekends, and a bar and hookah lounge, where a younger crowd inhales flavored water pipes and sips craft cocktails created by Chelsea (try the delicious dragon-berry mojito, $11). Although some observant Muslims have given Shirdel grief for serving alcohol, he says Kababi Café is tolerant and welcoming to all, with regular customers who include Russians, Israelis, Europeans and Middle Easterners. Some travel from Miami, Melbourne and Naples, Shirdel says.
The space once housed an Italian restaurant, and Shirdel kept the interior design of brick walls and faux storefront display windows and dressed them with Persian touches, such as rugs and Scheherazade sculptures. The pace is relaxed, with diners allowed to stagger their orders. When Shirdel adds a new dish to the menu, he often peeks from the kitchen to see if customers enjoy it.
“I like pleasing people,” Shirdel says.
The crunchy fried rice ($8.95), a Persian specialty known as tahdig, pleases nearly everyone. The dish of slightly burnt scrapings from the bottom of the rice pan has become the restaurant’s most popular item, crackling finger food used to scoop up smoky eggplant dip ($8.95) or creamy hummus ($8.95) or piping-hot lentil soup ($6.95) or yellow split-pea stew with beef and tomatoes ($14.95). It might make you forsake the flat lavash bread, a packaged variety from California that is served with butter. Shirdel has been experimenting with vegetarian variations of tahdig, making burnt scrapings of eggplant and cauliflower.
Vegetables also do well in raw form, including a side dish of shoor ($4.95), a housemade pickled mix of cauliflower, carrots and hot peppers, and the KC salad ($6.95), a chopped blend of cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, parsley, avocado and jalapenos in lemon juice and olive oil that is a perfect summer starter.
Shirdel prides himself on preparation that doesn’t cut corners, with techniques and recipes passed down from his family.
“My mother was a good cook and my grandfather was a good eater,” Shirdel explains. “I was the oldest child, so I was always the one in the kitchen helping my mother out.”
The pillowy basmati rice with saffron is an example of worthwhile extra effort. It goes through a three-step process: soaked overnight, then boiled and dried, and then steamed. After I took some home and refrigerated it overnight, I was amazed how soft it remained. Instead of getting hard and granular, it could be eaten cold the next day.
Shirdel came to the U.S. from Tehran in 1979, just before the revolution that toppled the shah. He attended high school in Paramus, N.J., and college in Brooklyn and had dreams of playing soccer professionally until the North American Soccer League folded. He tooled around as a musician in New York, and started his culinary career when he moved to South Florida. His family has run several restaurants in Plantation, Tamarac and Sunrise over the past two decades, including Kuluck Persian Restaurant, which closed after the great recession of 2008.
When he got back into the restaurant business and launched Kababi Café in 2014, he kept “Kuluck” in the name to rekindle memories for past loyal customers. “Kuluck,” he explains, is a Persian word that means something that is done very well, but it also has another meaning, of an intense storm. Out of a kuluck, Kababi Café by Kuluck has done very well, indeed.
Kababi Cafe by Kuluck
3828 N. University Drive, Sunrise
954-909-4133 or KababiCafe.com
Cuisine: Persian with kebabs, stews, many vegetable items and aromatic rices
Cost: Moderate. Salads, soups and starters cost $4.95 to $9.95, main courses $14.95-$32.95 ($95 for huge family platter), desserts $6.
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday, noon-midnight Saturday, noon-9 p.m. Sunday
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full bar with specialty cocktails and hookah lounge
Sound level: Conversational but can get loud during weekend belly dancing performances
Handicapped access: Ground level
Parking: Free lot