Denj (fka Mr. Cook): Going Deep with Persian Sandwiches in the Valley
20002 Ventura Boulevard
Woodland Hills, CA 91364
818 340 7777
Date of Visit: November 28, 2010
One of my favorite aspects of working as a restaurant reporter is the progression. Some days, there’s no sense of how to fill my slate, yet a trip into the L.A. wilderness inevitably yields results. It’s the reason that the bulk of my writing happens in coffeehouses, and the reason that I conduct so many interviews in-person. If you put yourself in a position to learn, people inevitably like to share their stories, and surprise run-ins often await. Of course I don’t always find threads to pull in the field, but they certainly won’t reveal themselves while sitting behind at my laptop at home.
One of my favorite recent threads, which quickly became a chain, involved a trip to the west Valley to finally try an Indian restaurant called the Copper Chimney…which no longer exists. No big deal. Ventura Boulevard houses a wealth of internationally diverse restaurants, and a quick drive east yielded several unfamiliar spots. I ducked into an overflowing, sign-less restaurant that ended up being Asal Bakery & Kabob, a very good new cafe that makes some of the best Persian food in the city. A related assignment led me back to Asal, and this time, I approached from a different direction, which allowed me to notice Mr. Cook. A daring menu guaranteed that I’d return for a third time. Improbably, Mr. Cook turned out to be even better than Asal in a lot of ways (other than Asal’s scintillating sangak bread), but really, it’s a double bonus to have both restaurants around.
Tehran native Frank “Mr. Cook” Mazloumi, wife Nahid and his daughters all pitch in at their small restaurant, which has been open just over four months in Woodland Hills. Mr. Cook is ostensibly an Iranian sandwich, salad and soup shop, but the Mazloumis house untold wonders within their restaurant. A quick look at the glass-fronted display case immediately reveals that Mr. Cook is no ordinary Persian restaurant. Metal trays house rows of uncooked organ meats, arrayed like pieces on some kind of mortuary checkerboard. The Halal parts previously belonged to sheep, including brains barely bigger than thumbs, livers, kidneys, hearts, even domballan, which we’ll get to momentarily.
My friend Bill Esparza and I worked our way through the inside of the lamb. The only question was whether we’d move back to front, or vice versa. One of our first tastes turned out to be an absolutely devastating sandwich, a combination of brain and tongue ($5.99) that Mr. Cook suggested. They have a loaf of duck tongue in a pan and shave off a slice before frying it on a griddle. The tongue could have doubled as confit, and the chunks of brain were cooked so delicately that they remained creamy. The other side of the roll packed pickle spears, raw onions, tomato slices, garlic sauce and cilantro, which provided a great textural and acid counterbalance to the rich offal. This might sound daunting, but if there’s a better sandwich in the city at the moment, I can’t think of it.
Specials are written on a wall mounted board in Farsi, including a silky stew of eggplant, egg, tomato and garlic stained yellow with turmeric and served with mint, lime, raw onion and lavash-like discs that the chef seared on a grill-side dome. On the side, we received a ramekin of torshi, in this case, a rough-cut pickled vegetable slurry that ripped right through that rich stew.
We finished with a quartet of flame-licked kebabs, starting at bottom, domballan (lamb testicle), naturally pungent liver, rosy-cored kidney and sirloin-like strips of heart, all served on pull apart flatbread that eventually became stained with the lamb’s natural juices. This was expertly prepared offal, clearly some of L.A.’s best. If people didn’t know they were organ meats, they would inevitably chow down. Well, the smell of the liver might give them pause, but other than that.
There wasn’t a single off-bite the entire meal, a testament to the care that the Mazloumi family takes with their food, and the respect they show the dear departed sheep. They also prepare a pair of dips that require advance notice – halva (green) and sholezard (yellow). That gives me two great reasons to return, and hopefully the next trip to Mr. Cook will lead to another link in the Persian chain. I have a feeling it might.
1/28/13 Update: Mr. Cook now goes by Denj Restaurant and features the same chef and owners.