Taco Arriba & Chelo Kabob
(Northcross Mall Food Court), 459-4595
Mon-Sat, noon-9pm; Sun, noon-6pm
Chelo Kabob serves Persian cuisine and, based on my somewhat limited exposure to the food of the country now known as Iran, quite delicious Persian cuisine at that. The Taco Arriba part (it has a standard Mexican taco-based menu as well) seems a mere afterthought, meant to appease the customers of the Food Court, which is next to the ice skating rink in Northcross Mall. Based on the quality of the Persian chow, the tacos are probably excellent as well, but the loyal customer base of Chelo Kabob doesn't go there for tacos; they go there for the huge platters of Near-Eastern kabobs with all the fixings.
Chelo Kabob (some sources spell it Chelow Kabob, but why quibble?) is the national dish of Iran, akin to our steak and potatoes. It consists of chelo (steamed basmati rice), meat kabobs (beef, chicken, or ground meat), grilled tomatoes,nan (a flat bread similar to pita), panir (a soft white cheese similar to feta), and onions and herbs. It's eaten all over Iran, from palaces to roadside vendors, and is considered the most popular comfort food in the country.
The menu at Chelo is heavily kabob-based, and the prices might give you sticker shock until you see the size of the platters -- sharing one, with a few side salads added, is quite common. On my first trip there, I was with a couple of pals, and this enabled us to order several items. We split the Soltani (Combination Beef Plate, $9.99), which was made up of a large kabob of sirloin that tasted like tenderloin (kabob-e- barg), and a long kabob of ground meat "balls" (kabob-e-koobideh -- it would make the perfect hamburger). The mongo-sized platter was lined with delicious saffron-steamed basmati rice and grilled tomato quarters. A big piece of nan flatbread studded with black and white sesame seeds was riding shotgun with the salad plate of white and green onion, parsley, cilantro, and a chunk of feta cheese. This is a lot of food for the money. It's also very, very tasty. We settled on the beef simply because they were out of the chicken. Oddly enough, our other pal who arrived a few minutes later was told that the chicken would be ready to cook in 10 minutes if he wanted to wait. I'm not complaining, mind you, the Soltani was superlative. It was Tuesday, so it was the only day that they offer Stewed Beef With Eggplant (Khorest Bademjan, $5.99). It was a richly spiced (saffron, cinnamon) stew of large chunks of lean beef with whole Japanese-style eggplant. This was all nestled atop a bed of steamed rice with yellow split peas and sour grapes (that tasted similar to soft-textured, sharp-tasting olives). You also got the salad plate and the nan. It was deliciously exotic tasting, very filling, and a hell of a bargain. I went back alone for the chicken a few days later. It came with different rice this time -- I think, simply because I had asked the owner a question about lentils. "Give him the lentil rice!" the owner shouted to his assistant. He turned to me and said, "It's special, you'll like it." Special indeed -- I loved it. Perfectly fluffy basmati rice with lentils, raisins, and spices. To the side was my skewer of golden grilled chicken kabob (Joo-jeh kabob, $6.99). Trust me, the chicken was great, but so was the rice. Of course, the salad and bread came with it. I have to go back on Fridays, when they have Lamb Shank With Green Rice (basmati with lima beans and dill, $8.99). I also want to try some of the side salads, like the cucumber, tomato, onion, and mint with lemon and olive oil ($1.99), or yogurt and shallot dip ($1.99, and highly recommended by the owner).
Chelo is small and funky -- two qualities that I heartily admire in an ethnic eatery. The owner seems to take a genuine interest in feeling you out, to see if you know anything about his cuisine. He also wants to know if you enjoyed your meal -- and I did. One downside to eating at the mall, especially if you enter from the north, is that you have to walk dangerously close to the blaring, cacophonous white noise of the video parlor down the way. But the upside to mall dining is the ever-changing assortment of freaks parading by -- a people-watcher's delight. Check this place out; you won't be disappointed. --Mick Vann