You may have driven past the modest El Camino building hundreds of times and barely noticed the place. Then there's the restaurant's name, which offers little indication about the type of food it serves. Best Bite? Is that a deli? A sandwich shop?
Look closer, however, and the neon window signs advertising "gyros" and "falafel" would suggest a pan-Mediterranean, order-at-the-counter place — maybe one of those quickie lunch spots where you can get good, cheap Greek or Lebanese food.
Peek in the window and any of these initial suspicions might be confirmed. You'll see about 10 humble tables, most of them booths covered in a red leather-ish material, plus a few seats at a front counter. The overall vibe is "small-town diner" or even "retro luncheonette."
But lift the veil on this quiet little establishment and there is something unexpected beneath: centuries-old recipes fragrant with cinnamon, rose water, cardamom and pomegranate; savory eggplant stews and pieces of charbroiled lamb served with sumac-dusted basmati rice.
Yes, Best Bite turns out to be a full-service — and sometimes surprisingly spendy — Persian restaurant.
Best Bite, owned by Iranian-born Ellahe Kakhadem and her family, has been serving up platters of home-style Iranian fare for 13 years. The Voice had not stopped by Best Bite since 2004, so we decided recently to revisit. We were glad we did.
While Persian food shares many similarities with the cuisine of Arab countries, the food is distinct in many ways, hewing more toward Central Asia, Afghanistan, Turkey and even India. Heavily spiced stews called gheymeh are simmered with meat or beans and often complemented by fruity undertones — lime, pomegranate, sour cherries or prunes. Chelow kabab, a ubiquitous dish in Iran, is basmati-style rice served with charbroiled lamb, beef or chicken, and a grilled tomato or two. Polo is a pilaf-like rice dish in which the rice is cooked in broth and subsequently steamed with meat or vegetables.
Different types of flat breads (naan) are enjoyed throughout Iran with the ultra-thin, almost cracker-like lavash being one of the most common. Lavash is one of the oldest and simplest bread recipes on the planet (flour, water and salt). I'm not a fan — lavash makes flour tortillas seem moist and interesting — so I passed on the basket our waiter brought to the table with an incongruous pairing of butter and raw onion.
We moved quickly to the magic that Iranians make with eggplant. Two of the three appetizers we ordered were centered on the aubergine and we inhaled both of them. The meerza ghaasemi ($8.99) was a plate of charbroiled eggplant pureed with egg, garlic, tomato and spices. It was smoky and fluffy, almost like a souffle or firmly scrambled eggs. The kashk bademjan ($8.99) was also an eggplant puree, but the eggplant was sauteed rather than grilled and mixed with caramelized yogurt for a tangier finish.
We ate the eggplant starters with the mast-o-moosir ($4.99). Similar to Greek tzatziki, this spinach-flecked dish of rich, cool yogurt was tangy and tasty, the perfect complement to everything we ate that night. During the main course, I even used it as a dip for the lamb kabab ($18.99).
In my opinion, the best kababs this side of Kandahar can be found at Kabul, a longtime Afghani restaurant tucked away in a San Carlos strip mall. Impossibly tender and embodying all the primeval appeal of meat cooked on an open flame, they are the yardstick by which I measure all other kababs. While Best Bite's lamb kabab was fine, it didn't come close to thwarting its Afghani competition, especially the price. For $19, I got about six pieces of slightly overcooked (but flavorful) lamb, a mound of buttery basmati rice, and a small grilled tomato.
My friend's gheymeh ($11.99) was a bigger hit. In Iran, this stew would be considered basic, everyday fare, but to us it was appealing and exotic — tiny pieces of beef, lentils, cinnamon, tomato and onion, all cooked with a whole lime for that fruity-savory interplay so typical of Persian food.
We also tried one of the house specials, the zereshk polo with joojeh (charbroiled chicken) ($15.99). This rice-and-meat dish was almost identical to the kabab plates, but the rice was more interesting, flecked with tiny red barberries and amped up with saffron. Barberries are miniscule but pack an intensely tart punch. They accompanied the tender chicken like cranberries playing off turkey.
The falafel sandwich ($6.99) is one of the less expensive options on the menu and among the best values — it was hefty, goopy with hummus and tahini, and the falafel balls were moist and flavorful.
Middle Eastern desserts are the stuff of diabetic nightmares and Best Bite's sugar-and-rose water concoctions rank right up there on the sweet-o-meter.
The baklava ($2.50) was too chewy and so sweet my teeth hurt just looking at the nutty triangles. The bamieh ($2.50), described in the menu as "a unique Persian pastry," was like a hardened funnel cake. Rose water and cardamom gave it an appealing flavor, but it was so hard to chew I gave up on it. We also tried the bastani ($3.99), an orange-pink ice cream flavored with saffron and pistachios. I couldn't taste any saffron and even the nutty flavor of pistachio was overpowered by sugar.
While the desserts left us with little more than a glucose rush, our overall experience at Best Bite was good. It can be rewarding to look past appearances and let yourself be surprised.
1414 W. El Camino Real, Mountain View
Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5- 9 p.m.
Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.