Columnist Jenn Harris joins your favorite celebrities to explore their go-to cuisines and restaurants in Los Angeles.
Spending an afternoon with Shohreh Aghdashloo is what I imagine hanging out with the president of the United States is like. There are selfies with fans, calls of adoration from across the street and even a photo opp with a smiling baby.
As soon as the actor walks through the door of Toranj restaurant in Westwood, a small frenzy erupts in the dining room. It’s the beginning of the lunch rush on a recent afternoon, and everyone notices her. Diners swivel in their seats to stare. The staff is awestruck, stopping in their tracks, plates in hand. They all bow their heads with greetings.
Aghdashloo is the raven-haired, Iranian-born actress who has appeared in dozens of TV series and movies, including “24,” “The Expanse” and “The Flight Attendant.” In 2003, her performance in “House of Sand and Fog” landed her the first Academy Award nomination for an Iranian actress. She won an Emmy for her role in “House of Saddam.” Most recently, she starred as Bellafrancesca Lobo, a mob boss who isn’t afraid to flirt with Dracula, in the new film “Renfield,” and she’s shooting “The Penguin” alongside Colin Farrell.
She receives the attention appreciatively, nodding and smiling to her admirers. In boots with a sizable wedge heel, there’s a quickness to her step as she takes a seat in the back corner of the restaurant.
She’s slight but not frail. At 71, she’s brimming with vitality.
11:03 a.m. Toranj Restaurant
Aghdashloo is starting a Persian food crawl around Tehrangeles, an area of Westwood dense with Persian-owned restaurants, markets and other businesses. She’s often in another country, state or city filming, but when she’s home in Los Angeles, you’ll find her here.
“Have you ever tried ghormeh sabzi?” she asks.
Her gravelly, husky voice is instantly recognizable. When she speaks, it registers as more of a low growl.
“Let’s get two,” she says. “With tahdig, of course. Tahdig here, tahdig there, tahdig everywhere.”
Iran’s storytelling tradition spans centuries. A woman in Tehrangeles has revolutionized it
The first woman to practice the ancient Iranian art of epic storytelling, Gordafarid inspires the Iranian diaspora as women fight for their rights back home.
We are at Toranj for the ghormeh sabzi, a hearty green vegetable stew recognized as the unofficial dish of Iran. And for tahdig, the prized, nearly scorched layer formed at the bottom of a pan of rice.
“People love it,” she says. “More than any other stews in Iran. If someone has posh guests, they make sure they make ghormeh sabzi. It’s a kingly meal.”
Though Aghdashloo was born in Iran, she hasn’t been back in 43 years. After speaking candidly in a CNN interview about stoning in Iran more than 30 years ago, she hasn’t returned. And she says she has no desire to.
Hers is a story of success through perseverance. After starring in various theater productions and films in Iran, she opened a small flower shop when she first arrived in Los Angeles. She continued to pursue acting, starting in the theater, then eventually breaking into American TV and film.
She’s a staunch patriot, eager to extol the virtues and freedoms of her life and career in America.
“I’ve been living my best life in America for the past 35 years,” she says, flipping the cap on a can of Coke. “I preserve the beautiful parts of my culture that I’m comfortable with. Food is one of them.”
A few minutes after we order, a platter overflowing with diced radish, cucumbers, fresh herbs, squares of feta cheese and walnuts arrives. It’s followed by a bowl of olives macerated in a pomegranate and walnut paste and a bowl of yogurt. A basket of steaming taftoon appears fresh out of the clay oven, the flatbread thin, crisp and mottled with deep brown bubbles.
A mini L.A. pasta crawl with actor Alison Brie.
“The more elaborate this dish, the more important your guests are,” she says, pointing to the platter of cheese and herbs. “You’re supposed to eat this before your food to make you even more hungry.”
When the ghormeh sabzi arrives, she dips a spoon into the stew to inspect it.
“It’s a nice color, not too watery,” she says. “Some people don’t fry their vegetables and they use dried vegetables, which doesn’t work.”
The stew is rich and dense, bitter with fenugreek and suffused with the distinct, earthy citrus smack of dried limes. Throughout the stew is a smattering of kidney beans, the small starchy nubs adding sweetness and texture to the melted mash of greens.
She tries the stew and emits what will be the first of many low moans while she eats.
Then, she claps with delight.
12:45 p.m. Jordan Market
As we make our way to Jordan Market, people on the street call to Aghdashloo.
“We love you,” says one woman, her hands full of groceries.
“Do you know who you’re walking with?” a man asks as he runs out of a nearby restaurant. “She’s amazing. The best!”
As soon as Aghdashloo walks into the market, she heads straight to the register. The man working the register sees her and smiles.
“Yes, we have them,” he says, already anticipating her question.
Whenever Aghdashloo is in town, she stops at Jordan Market for piroshki. The large orbs of fried dough are filled with cream and dusted with sugar. The market has them in plastic containers near the register, meant to entice you as you pay for your groceries.
In addition to the piroshki, this is where Aghdashloo shops for her infamous Persian parties, large dinners she likes to host for cast and crew after she’s wrapped a season of a series or a film.
She rattles off her go-to favorites while perusing the aisles.
For this installment of The Crawl, our celebrity food crawl series, Jeannie Mai Jenkins, host of the new ‘America’s Test Kitchen: The Next Generation,’ takes us on a four-hour, three-stop Vietnamese food crawl around the San Fernando Valley and shows us the right way to eat pho.
“Dried dill, cloves, cinnamon. Onion powder. Bay leaves. This yogurt dip seasoning. Just pour a little on top of your yogurt. Iranian cheese. The jams. Pickled garlic to keep the skin shining. Persian tea, of course.”
A customer in the market shoves his smiling baby daughter into her arms, then asks for a photo. Aghdashloo obliges, cooing at the baby.
She breaks into her piroshki before we leave the store, powdered sugar clinging to her lips as we depart.
1:58 p.m. Javan Restaurant
Aghdashloo has a specific dish in mind at each stop along the crawl. At Javan, it’s kebab and rice.
While we wait for our food, she gets up from her seat to stand beside me. She wants to play me a clip of herself in “Renfield.”
In the video, her character, Bellafrancesca Lobo, meets Dracula, played by Nicolas Cage. She watches me watch, giddy and laughing.
“She’s flirting with Dracula!” she says incredulously. “Oh,” she says with a hand to her chest, imitating her character.
Our server interrupts the viewing with a platter of meat. He gingerly sets down the giant oval plate crammed with beef koobideh, barg, chicken koobideh and chicken kebab. The koobideh, logs of pressed, seasoned ground beef, are one of the dishes Aghdashloo uses as a litmus test for Persian restaurants.
She stabs a piece of koobideh, then takes a bite before vigorously nodding her head. She seems to eat with her entire body.
“It’s harder to make than barg and you have to season it right and cook it just right,” she says. “This one is just right.”
Aghdashloo says she didn’t learn how to cook until she was 35, prompted when she became a mother. She asked a friend from Iran to teach her how to make some basic stews and rice.
“That’s how I started cooking,” she says. “But I still cannot call myself a cook. My mother used to say you call yourself a cook when you can make pastries.”
Though she won’t call herself a cook, Aghdashloo hosts lavish Persian parties for friends and castmates whenever she’s in town and has the time to devote to serving a crowd.
“By Persian parties, I mean eat, dance and tell jokes,” she says. “Loose, fun and energetic.”
Aghdashloo’s blueprint for the party starts with a full day of shopping, cleaning and prepping vegetables and marinating meats. The morning of the party, she wakes early, giving herself enough time to devote to the ghormeh sabzi. By 7 p.m., when her guests arrive, she greets each one at the door with a shot of vodka and a “bump” of caviar.
There are lots of fruits and nuts on a table full of appetizers.
“There should not be a small place that you can leave your phone,” she said. “It should be full.”
An almost vegan food crawl with Theo Rossi, ‘Emily the Criminal’ star and hummus traditionalist
Actor Theo Rossi takes us on a tour of some of his favorite Middle Eastern places in Los Angeles, from Bavel to Sunnin. He loves the food that reminds him of the meals he shared with his family back in New York.
She serves ghormeh sabzi; a stew made with pomegranate and walnut called fesenjoon, a dish she calls Persian curry (“less spices than Indian”); and an array of kebabs she orders from Shirin restaurant in the San Fernando Valley.
“Right after dinner I turn the music up as loud as possible and I ask everyone to join me and dance,” she says. “There is no formula. Just unleash yourself.”
If you’re one of the guests who makes it to 3 or 4 a.m., the music switches to Bob Dylan. Everyone is welcome to crash on the couch or in a room upstairs.
It seems her passion for hosting parties is matched only by an insatiable sweet tooth. Aghdashloo finishes lunch with a bowl of saffron ice cream and crunchy wafer cookies.
3:46 p.m. Darya Restaurant
Aghdashloo points to a table on the patio at Darya, her usual spot when she visits.
“I come here alone,” she says. “I sit at that table next to the window. I sit there and I devour my food.”
She mimics shoveling food into her mouth, then makes a scarfing, pig-like noise and laughs.
“Darya looks like my grandmother’s house,” she says. “Too many furniture, too many chandeliers. Very ornate. And the food tastes like my grandmother’s.”
Though her mother wasn’t a great cook, Aghdashloo treasured her grandmother’s cooking. She sacrificed summers on the Caspian Sea with her parents to stay with her grandmother and eat albaloo polo, sour cherries with rice and chicken.
At Darya, she orders the white fish, fried, every time.
Our server delivers a large plate of sabzi polo, basmati rice studded with cilantro, green onion, parsley and garlic. Next to the rice is a mound of green salad, and over the top are three pieces of golden fried fish.
Aghdashloo instructs me to squeeze the provided lime wedges onto the fish, then dig in. The fish is cooked perfectly, crisp and flaky. The rice underneath is enlivened with the herbs, enough to make the mound appear green.
“They make it the best here,” she says. “I don’t order this anywhere else.”
For Nowruz and year-round, the Azizam pop-up showcases the seasonal glories of Persian cooking
Before we finish, our server brings over a round of hot tea and a plate of bamieh and zoolbia, deep-fried desserts soaked in sugar syrup. The first is a squat oblong with ridges down the sides. The latter is like a blob of funnel cake, the strands of dough in loose bumpy swirls. Both are swamped in syrup, immoderately sweet, sticky and not quite crisp.
“Zoolbia bamieh, zoolbia bamieh!” She says them in quick succession, like they’re one entity, raising her arms above her head and yelling over the noise of the dining room.
She quickly pops a bamieh into her mouth and lets out another low moan.
“My daughter always says, ‘Mom, behave yourself,’ but I can’t help it,” she says.
“Maybe one day I’ll slow down and retire,” she says with a shrug. “When I was 50, I said, ‘When I’m 60.’ Then I was 60 and said, ‘When I’m 70.’”
She shakes her head and lets out another “Zoolbia bamieh, zoolbia bamieh!”
Where to eat on the Persian food crawl
Toranj, 10861 Lindbrook Dr., Los Angeles, (310) 824-8188, toranjrestaurant.com
Jordan Market, 1449 Westwood Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 478-1706
Javan, 11500 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 207-5555, www.javanrestaurant.com
Darya, 12130 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 442-9000, www.daryarestaurant.com
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.