To some Long Beach residents, the strip mall unit at 2507 Long Beach Boulevard is best known as Julio's, a beloved 'hood-ready Italian delivery establishment that takes forever to get to your door, but surprises with edible pies and standard meatball subs. To a number of particularly adventurous diners, though, 2507 Long Beac is also home to Arya, the only certified Halal Persian restaurant in the city and the only place to get pecular-sounding dishes like kashk o'bademjan, moust o'mosier and fesenjoon.
I say "adventurous" because it takes some serious guts to order even steamed rice from a place that has for decades spooned out basic Hawaiian pizzas and orders of chicken alfredo and just a few years ago decided to add kebobs and other exotically spiced goodies to its menu. And it takes even more cojones to wander into the perpetually empty dining room of an almost exclusively take-out-and-delivery place and sit down for a proper cornish hen kabob like it's your neighborhood Iranian bistro.
Growing up in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley, though, properly prepared me for a lifetime of such culinary risks. A Mexican-named pizza place with a three-year-old Persian restaurant stacked inside is like if Encino and Reseda finally overcame their ethnic differences and melded into one kitchen. But ofcourse it took Long Beach--not L.A.--to actually create something as wild as Arya's and Julio's. Unfortunately, though, Julio's Italian food is pretty unexciting. It gets the job done with cheap fried mozzarella sticks, antipasto salads fit for sharing and two-topping pizza specials, but knowing its neighborhood, also overreaches with teriyaki bowls, tacos, burgers, BBQ ribs and fried catfish. Arya's Persian food is far more compelling, and of course an anomaly on this side of town where fast-food chains sit on every corner and the taqueria is about as ethnic as it gets.
Lunch specials serve as a proper introduction to Persian cuisine, which despite its connection to Mediterranean and other Middle Eastern food, could not be more dissimilar. Timid eaters can start with the orange saffron-tinted kabobs of chicken, beef and cornish hen, but dig deeper and you'll find a fascinating world of khoureshts (stews), polo (rice) and maust (yogurt) dishes that have few flavor reference points to food from other countries. Gheymeh is a lamb, onion and yellow split pea stew made with a tomato-paste base and loaded with enough saffron and tumeric to give it a sweaty-feet smell that thankfully does not translate into its flavor. Ghormeh sabzi is basically the national dish of Iran--a stew with herbs, kidney beans, lamb, dried limes and seasonings served over basmati rice. And the zereshk polo is a traditional dish of saffron basmati rice topped with dried zereshk, or barberries (the tiny currants are tart as hell, so make sure to eat some rice with it for balance).
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Since the only other Persian restaurant in Long Beach is a hidden cafe in Belmont Shore that sticks to kabobs and rotates through spiced stews only as weekly specials (check it: Gypsy's), Arya's is the default top spot for all kinds of authentic Persian food. And who cares if the owners of 2507 Long Beach Blvd. have a bit of an identity crisis with their calzones and juicy Halal kabobs made by the same chef. Only in Long Beach would your local tablecloth Persian restaurant be made even more intriguing by its double duty as an Italian kitchen with pizza delivery to the surrounding 'hood.
Arya's Fine Persian Cuisine, 2509 Long Beach Blvd, Long Beach, (562) 490-2792; arya-persian.com