Where to Café Vanak on Belmont Street in Belmont, which seemed to have been under construction for the entire pandemic (really only for a year).
Why Super Vanak, a terrific market for all kinds of spices, sacks of basmati and other rice, nuts, dates, glass cups for tea, and an array of Persian and Middle Eastern ingredients, was in business for months before the adjacent café opened with a Halal Iranian and Middle Eastern menu.
The back story Seta’s Café closed in September 2019 and the community was bereft. As if to further punish devoted customers, the landlord left up the Seta’s signs on Belmont Street far too long after the closing. Then brown paper covered the storefront windows from November 2020 to March 2021, when the local zoning board issued necessary permitting. Both the market and the new café, which started serving in late October and seats 16, are run by Zoreh Beheshti and her husband, Babak Shams Asef. Vanak means “small ash tree” in Persian; it’s the name of a neighborhood in the northern part of Tehran.
What to eat Eggplant Mirzaghasemi (Eggplant Mix) is an exquisite spread of roasted eggplant and grilled tomatoes. Stuffed Grape Leaves come with beef or without; the filling is mixed with rice, vinegar, and grape syrup, which makes unusual little sweet and sour bundles. Beheshti’s mother is making them one by one. Chicken Potato Salad doesn’t sound like much, but it’s wonderful, mixed with eggs, carrots, pickled cucumbers, and green peas. Vanak Salad is a bowl of greens, olives, raisins, feta, and sunflower seeds. Two skewers come on the grilled plates, accompanied by delicious rice, with its bright splash of saffron on top, grilled tomato, grilled onion, mini bell peppers. You can order ground beef or chicken, called Koobideh; Chicken Kebab, called Joojeh; and many more, including Vegan Kebab, a plant-based patty that Asef is making. Don’t be surprised if you find a little flower carved from a spring onion garnishing your plate.
What to drink Barberry juice (a little sour, but “Persians love it,” says Beheshti. “We love sour”), saffron tea, saffron juice made with rosewater, and carbonated and regular yogurt drinks.
The takeaway The neighborhood was desperate for Café Vanak and it fits right in, with its friendly staff, unusually well-made food, and appealing menu. The brown paper that covered up the windows came down and a very happy, bright spot emerged. 271 Belmont St., Belmont. www.vanakfood.com, 617-932-1445 and 617-932-1486.