It wasn’t my intention to eat brains on Halloween, and despite a certain blogger’s accusation on Twitter, I’m not actually a zombie, but I did enjoy a bowl of lamb’s brains (and tongues) at Asal Bakery & Kabob, it wasn’t nearly as ghoulish as you might imagine, and I’d do it again.
The Persian restaurant has no sign out front, but after only three months, they’re already drawing lines like a bear to “honey,” which is what the name means in Farsi. The good word has clearly spread throughout the vibrant Middle Eastern community on the western wing of the San Fernando Valley.
The look of the long and lean room is fairly simple, with orange banquette seating along the eastern wall and a trio of pastry cases loaded with dozens of different cookies. What’s clear is that the action revolves around the gleaming stainless steel oven, which resides near the entrance and features twin portals. A baker hand-forms dough and slides it into one trapezoid, it rotates on an a lazy susan, passing through an inferno on its way to becoming bread. A second employee pulls the sheets of bread through a second trapezoid and lays it on a tiered rack. A good number of customers come to Asal just for the sanjak, which is stacked on white butcher paper, folded over and handed to customers to take home. Sanjak comes in golden brown, sesame studded sheets. Asal also bakes a thicker torpedo-shaped bread called barbari.
Cousins Mike Riazati and Reza Abdollahi, both from Tehran, utilize plenty of family recipes (and family members) to operate Asal. A lot of customers order kabobs, salads and soups, but on the weekends, the cousins really open up their playbook. On Saturdays and Sundays, they offer dishes like haleem (a turkey-fortified, spice-dusted porridge) and the dish that interested me most: Kalleh Pacheh.
Kalleh Pacheh (14.99) is a traditional Persian breakfast stew involving lamb’s tongue and lamb’s brain. At Asal, they keep it as simple as possible, boiling whole tongues and chunks of brain in water with only onion and pepper. The firm, whitish-tan chunks of brain become firm and some of the tongues hold together entirely, while others break apart and contribute to the offal debris.
Since a lot of people are going to want to see a close-up view of the lamb’s brain, I took a photo, but really, if you put aside the unmistakeable look of the ridged lobe, this was just good eating, even better than the tongue, which the boiling process rendered chewier.
They have vegetable soup, but that’s available every day, so I opted for barley, which was viscous from the starch, stained yellow with turmeric and studded with minced carrot and dried mint. It’s a good idea to dip the thick, fragrant soup with swaths of crisp-crusted but plenty pliable sanjak.
The chunks of lamb offal were fairly rich on their own, but paired well with Asal’s amazing torshi, quite possibly the best dish of pickled vegetables in any Middle Eastern restaurant in the city at the moment. The cousins lavish tiny cauliflower florets, thin-sliced carrot and a mysterious mush that Abdollahi swears was eggplant in a jar of vinegar for an entire month until it achieves optimum pungency. It’s hard to imagine any food that would be rich enough to shout down the screaming acidity in Asal’s torshi.
With all those cookies, it was impossible to leave without swinging by the pastry cases to load up a plastic container. The cookies were almost all good, including a finger of baklava stained yellow with saffron, thin cookies lined with thin layers of jam and almond scales, a raisin cookie, and a seemingly basic shortbread cookie flavored with rosewater.
This was a great initial scout, and there will most certainly be additional trips to Asal to devour the haleem, kabobs and of course plenty of sanjak.