Neither Darband Shishkabob nor Bijan Persian Restaurant are anything new to the Mahatma Gandhi District. Yet still, most people I've asked in Houston claim there is no good Persian food in the city. I almost believed them after a mostly flavorless meal at the much ballyhooed Kasra Persian Grill, but in the space of three days and two meals, Darband and Bijan renewed my faith in the cooking abilities of Houston's Iranian population.
In fact, which of the two is more worthy of my recommendation is almost too close to call. In the interest of helping readers choose the correct kebab house for them, I've pitted the two restaurants head-to-head in a number of categories. Choose wisely, then try the other and see if you agree with me.
Darband: Houston's oldest Persian restaurant, which opened in 1986, unsurprisingly has a vintage feel about. Maybe it's the peeling plaque that shows off the restaurant's 1991 mention in a long-discontinued magazine, or the fountain in the center of the dining room that looks primed for a Persian version of the famous Krystle vs. Alexis "Dynasty" fight. Otherwise, the room feels a bit like a pizzeria, but with more tantalizing, meatier smells.
Bijan: A step up from a pizzeria inside, the case filled with pastries recalls the Greek diners of my northeastern youth. Even the art featuring reproductions of ancient portrayals of Gilgamesh lend a similar feel to the Hellenic tchotchkes that pervade greasy spoons. But sit outside, and it's a different story. Bijan has a fountain too, but it's gigantic and styled to look more like a grotto. It's transporting, even if that trip's destination isn't necessarily Iran.
Darband: The hummus here is excellent, and at just $2.50 comes in a cup big enough for several people to share. The creamy chickpea dip breathes cumin and garlic, but a thick slick of olive oil on top is excessive and at times mires the hummus' natural assets.
Bijan: Why order plain old hummus ($4.50) when you can get a warm plate of kashk-e-bademjan? The eggplant dip is less tomato-dominated than most versions I've tried, but it gets its fair share of acid from a slathering of yogurt. The warm, garlicky slurry also benefits from a topping of sweet fried onions and the barbari bread that comes on the side. The stretchy dough is a lot like pizza, and arrives hot from the oven. Darband's version of the same bread is smaller and comparatively bland, though also warm.
Kebabs and Rice
Darband: I was afraid I would never find a boneless chicken kebab as pitch-perfect as the one I used to enjoy at the now-shuttered Farah's Place in Vermont. OK, I still haven't, but the tender, yogurt-marinated bird at Darband comes pretty darn close. Thoughts of the chicken, speckled with grill marks and sumac, are making me salivate even now. The beef, however, is slightly tough and not nearly as packed with sparkle as the poultry.
The rice is relatively plain, and clumps of it sticking together signaled that it may not have come straight from the pot. Peppers, onions and tomatoes are hot and edged with char.
Bijan: The enviable rice is the centerpiece of any kebab meal here. It's fluffy and crowned with saffron-colored strands on its own, but depending on the dish, it can be mixed with dill or covered in a collection of dried fruits and nuts, the best of which is a butter-sautéed combo of sour cherries, cranberries, pistachios and almond slivers. Unfortunately, the vegetables I tried were uniformly cold and undercooked.
Thank goodness for the caramelized chunks of chicken and beef. The filet mignon is unsurprisingly tender, but the marinade that imbues it is what makes it a real winner, even if it doesn't quite compete with Darband's chicken. Bijan's bird, meanwhile is not as deeply flavored as the one at Darband, but comes in big chunks that are ever so slightly crisped on the grill.
Winner: It's a split decision, completely dependent on whether you want chicken or beef. And if you feel like lamb, more research is necessary on my end. But overall, unless you're specifically looking for chicken, we recommend Bijan a hair more heartily than we do Darband.