A blue leaf blower fans the flames of a charcoal grill in a Santa Monica parking lot, wafting smoke and ash in the direction of hopeful diners. People anxiously await straightforward skewers like chicken thigh and salmon, plus more unusual proteins like lamb liver, which delivers an Iron Man-like punch. The food may be Persian, but the soundtrack is L.A. hip-hop classics like “Boyz n the Hood.” On Sunday afternoons, Tehran Market’s back lot has become a hotspot for Iranian expats and food lovers who crave chargrilled comfort.
Even though L.A. is home to the largest Persian population outside of Iran, the country’s cuisine is sparse in Santa Monica. That dynamic has actually helped their cause. By being located four miles from Persian Square, an Iranian hub along Westwood Boulevard, Tehran Market has managed to flourish since 1987. Isfahan native Mory Pourvasei debuted his grocery store that year near UCLA Medical Center, becoming a mainstay for Persian staples, spices, and produce.
Naz Deravian is a regular at the shop and wrote a book called Bottom of the Pot: Persian Recipes and Stories, in which she describes shopping at Tehran Market. She said she appreciates the selection and quality.
The market has been slowly expanding since 1993, when it took over an adjacent storefront. But the biggest transformation yet took place seven years ago, when Soheil, Pourvasei’s stepson, bought 50 percent of the business. The Tehran native and seasoned restaurateur has significantly upgraded the food offerings, adding a massive refrigerated case that houses raw and marinated meats, an array of dips, pickles, and flavored rice dishes, plus prepared Persian stews like fesenjan (chicken with pomegranate and walnuts) and khoresh gheymeh (beef with yellow split peas). For the past four years, he’s also worked to open a restaurant in an adjacent dry cleaner, which should debut this summer.
They sell 700 to 1,000 skewers every Sunday in their parking lot. “I start at 11 and by 4, everything is sold out,” Soheil says. “It’s crazy. That’s why I want to expand.”
Koobideh (ground beef) is Tehran Market’s best-selling kebab, but even organ meats move. At first, Soheil says “secrets” when asked about his signature marinade, but he soon admits to using olive oil, fresh and powdered garlic, onions, bell peppers, and saffron. These are time-tested recipes that permeate to the center of each protein, imparting wonderfully savory flavor when seared.
Each kebab order comes with grilled tomato and pepper, the paper-thin flatbread called lavash, pickled cucumbers, punchy mixed vegetable torshi, and bright, fresh parsley with raw onion.
Soheil ran a restaurant called Ghoreishi in Tehran for five years, but left it in the hands of his business partner when he moved to L.A. to join his mother and stepfather. Since meat was readily available after the market’s fridge was installed, he took to grilling in the parking lot.
At the restaurant, tentatively called Tehran Grill, Soheil wasn’t able to get a permit for charcoal grilling from the City of Santa Monica. He’ll have to make due with gas flames, though he’s not worried about the difference. And Soheil has many other recipes in his arsenal. The restaurant will serve hot versions of dishes in the market’s case, plus cool dips and pickles.
Soleil is especially excited for customers to try his sandwiches, which come on baguettes with pickles, tomatoes, parsley, onions, “secret sauce,” and proteins like mortadella, sausage, chicken, and the legendary Persian combo of beef tongue and lamb brain.
Persian food may not be as prevalent in Santa Monica as in other parts of L.A., but as Tehran Market’s Sunday grill-fests prove, locals have no trouble grasping his cooking. That goes for Persians and non-Persians alike. “I just want to serve good food,” he says.
Tehran Market, 1417 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica.