The lunch line at House of Kabob in Lake Forest curls out the door, the neck of each prospective diner craned toward the kitchen. It's a crowd mostly of baby-faced workers from nearby tech firms waiting with ID cards still dangling from their company-issued lanyards. They're jockeying, however politely, for even a fleeting glimpse of the restaurant's excellent Persian cooking.
Dishes here are often sights to behold: cubes of meat lapped in flames until they're transformed into perfectly grilled, tender blocks; mountains of long-grain basmati rice tall enough to teach you a lesson in topography. Still, House of Kabob's success has been downright quiet. It's taken simmering, persistent praise and neighborly devotion for the restaurant to outgrow its tiny home.
Yet when the Lake Forest original spawned a second location in an Irvine strip mall late last year, it wasn't just a matter of expansion — it was culinary mitosis.
Jozef Besharati's two restaurants are identical. Both are at the nucleus of a cluster of business parks. Both reach capacity at about two dozen diners. Both are adorned with the kind of faux Mediterraneana that furnishes so many Southern California homes. And most important, both prepare the same exacting Persian classics.
House of Kabob cooks with self-assurance, its name a declaration of the restaurant's dominion over all things skewered. Kebabs (the preferred spelling) do indeed fare well, gobbets of beef, lamb or chicken charred in a primal, pleasing way. The koobideh kebab — ground beef formed into a torpedo — is the juicy ideal of what a kebab can be, the meat made almost silken amid the flames.
Combination kebabs offer a complete experience. The zafarani kebab trio provides a taste of everything: a boneless chicken kebab, a koobideh kebab and two lamb chops. Each kebab plate is served with a heap of basmati rice and orbs of charbroiled tomato, their skins blistered and scarred like the craggy surface of some comet-battered planet.
Flame-lashed meats may be the restaurant's specialty, but its rice dishes deserve just as much adoration. They're complete meals that can easily feed two, huge dinners accompanied by a leg of chicken or a crusty kebab. Try the zereshk polo flavored with dried barberries. Harvested primarily in Iran from thorny evergreen shrubs, the Tic Tac-sized berries stain the rice a rosy pink, dotting the zereshk polo like tiny ruby ornaments. The barberries impart a tartness more pronounced than a whole bottle of pomegranate juice.
The rest of the rice dishes are diverse and distinct, like the addas polo: basmati rice studded with lentils, dates, raisins and a particular kind of sweetness that echoes the honeyed notes of caramelized onions. Or there's the Creamsicle-orange shirin polo tossed with slivered almonds, pistachios and bits of candied orange peel.
House of Kabob also makes a few quintessential Persian stews. Ghormeh sabzi is a staple of the Iranian kitchen, here a meaty veal shank cooked with parsley, cilantro, chives, kidney beans and a clutch of assorted herbs. Fesenjon is similarly popular, hunks of chicken submerged in a walnut-thickened, pomegranate-sweetened sauce so good you'll want to spoon it onto just about everything.
Portions are large enough to feed the most outsize appetites, but set aside some space for an appetizer. Nearly all are designed for dipping — flavored yogurts and hummus meant to be eaten with squares of lavash — but none is more complex than the kashk o bademjon: fried eggplant pounded into a puree and topped with tangy, whey-like kashk, a dusting of dried mint and crunchy fried onions.
Evenings are lively at House of Kabob — diners finally getting a chance to thumb through the day's paper, friends catching up over piles of rice — but afternoons are the restaurant's best and busiest. When those programmers and engineers eventually land seats, they happily lunch on sandwiches swaddled in sheets of lavash and slightly downsized kebabs. You get the feeling they'll be back to eat it all again tomorrow.
House of Kabob
Location: 20651 Lake Forest Drive, Suite 101 B, Lake Forest, (949) 460-0800, and 92 Corporate Park, Suite F, Irvine, (949) 261-8004. www.ochouseofkabob.com.
Price: Appetizers and salads, $3.99 to $8.99; rice dishes, $6.99 to $12.99; kebabs and stews, $8.99 to $17.99; drinks and desserts, $1.99 to $3.99.
Details: Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday and Sunday, and 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Lot parking. Credit cards accepted.