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Chef Mahmmud Jaafari has got a gem on his hands with Green Leaf Cafe, a casual little shop on 19th Avenue and Campbell in Phoenix. The place has been around for more than a decade, serving an ambitious menu of Persian cuisine accented by Mediterranean, Italian, American, Mexican, Cajun, vegetarian and even a smattering of Oriental influences. It's always been popular with Middle Eastern immigrants, health food nuts and adventurous eaters.
Yet it's only recently that the restaurant -- known as Main Street Cafe until a few years ago -- became mainstream, drawing in crowds of diners from broader walks of life. Perhaps the Valley is growing up; whatever the motivation, it's refreshing to see more people willing to give the nondescript, strip-mall storefront a chance. For this they've been amply rewarded with some of the most fantastic, healthy, budget-priced food in the Valley.
Now Jaafari is spreading the wealth, opening Persian Garden Cafe on Thomas across from Phoenix College. This is an upscale sister to Green Leaf, offering virtually the same menu but in a more luxurious setting. Such an approach is overdue: it's high time the Phoenix area had a restaurant that concentrates on vegetarian, vegan, macrobiotic and authentic Middle Eastern flavors yet is housed in more than a hippie hole-in-the-wall.
1335 W. Thomas Road
Phoenix, AZ 85013
Region: Central Phoenix
Angel hair feta salad$10
Vegan pumpkin pie$4
Whatever Jaafari spent on his new decor, the cost hasn't been passed on to the customers. Prices at Persian Garden are equal to those at Green Leaf Cafe, with lunch entrees coming in at $8 to $12, and dinner maxing out at $18 for a massive stir-fry feast of chicken, shrimp, snow peas, mushrooms, carrots, celery, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, turnips, cabbage, bean sprouts, onion and ginger root over brown rice. Best of all, the food hasn't been dumbed down to appeal to a clientele more comfortable with fancier tablecloth service. Flavors are knock-your-socks off stunning, vibrant with the herbs, spices, fruits and nuts that are the hallmark of Persian food.
Situated next to a yoga center and sharing a parking lot with the Original Hamburger Works, Persian Garden is a symphony in tapestry, the walls hung with plush Persian carpets, the tables draped with intricate Middle Eastern fabrics under glass. It's not often that chairs take center stage, but they do here, in gleaming carved wood cushioned with more of that rich, elaborate fabric. A communal booth is another relaxing option, backed in blond wood under contemporary-looking dropped ceiling pieces fashioned of wood. The place is quietly classy, accented with expensively framed portraits of Middle Eastern people and landscapes, brick floors and a modern, rounded wall of blue-and-maroon tile spliced with backlit glass block. Traffic whizzing by on Thomas is a distant memory, shrouded by sheer white curtains on the expansive glass-windowed storefront and soothed by Middle Eastern music and a splashing fountain.
The restrained setting serves as a tranquil backdrop to food prepared with wild but skilled abandon. Jaafari knows his seasonings, and isn't afraid to use them, sometimes to shocking effect. The herbs and spices are everywhere. They come in fresh and dried form; as centerpieces, accents and garnishes; in a dazzling array of oregano, basil, mint, dill, fennel, cumin, garlic, capers, parsley, ginger, fenugreek (a pleasantly bitter, slightly sweet herb), cilantro and more. These leaves, stems and seeds bring jolts of aroma and taste to simple vegetables, chicken, shrimp, lamb, tofu and pasta.
An appetizer of pourani is much more than just parboiled spinach blended with yogurt; it's a luxurious dip deeply perfumed with garlic, onion and olive oil, spooned with homemade whole-wheat pita bread triangles. Baba ghanouj elevates eggplant, the fruit rendered creamy and spanked with garlic, black pepper, tahini (sesame seed paste), chives and parsley. Like hummus, it's dipped with pita and vegetable sticks. And though I prefer a thicker hummus than the soupy model served here, there's no denying the rush that comes from good garbanzo beans blended with quantities of lemon juice, soy sauce, black pepper, tahini and parsley.
Jaafari's "cugurt" is a milder lead-in, a velvety blend of homemade yogurt, chopped cucumber, mint, dill, onion and sea salt that's equally bitter and sweet. A merza faranghee starter is perfectly prepared, the plate strewn with three bundles of grilled tomato, feta and onion wrapped with soft strips of grilled eggplant alongside cugurt, pita and rice.
Jaafari is a stickler for from-scratch cooking, crafting every detail down to the stock for the homemade vegetarian soups. Lentil, black bean and an oil-free minestrone dusted with Parmesan are highly-prized choices, but miso is my top pick. The soup is ugly to look at but entirely edible, its mud-colored broth lurking with a nice, woody-toned undercurrent of soy sauce and ginseng. This miso is more filling than traditional Japanese soup, stocked with dice-sized chunks of tofu, scallion, carrot, seaweed and onion.
The kitchen creates its own salad dressing, with results so good it ought to be sold retail. No wimpy vinegar and oil here; rather a wonder of olive oil, apple cider vinegar, lemon juice, dried herbs and Persian spices. The concoction glistens on shirazi, each bite of chopped tomato, cucumber and red onion releasing a different note. One bite is lemon, another is distinctly mint, yet another is sharp vinegar.