Sweet, sour, smoky torsh kabob brings you symphony of northeastern Iran flavours
Pars Grill is located at 975 Major Mackenzie Drive in Vaughan
One of my favourite areas to eat in right now is around North York, specifically at Yonge Street from Sheppard Avenue West and just north of there, commonly referred to as Little Korea North. It's also referred to as Little Persia. It's a conjunction of two very different cultures that share the same street in Toronto.
On this strip you'll find incredible Korean food, the best in the city, and you'll also find Iranian bakeries, grocery stores and late-night cafes as you head north.
There are iconic Iranian shops like Khorak and Super Arzon that have become community hubs, and you'll find amazing Sangak and Babari bread at places like Parsian Fine Foods.
Little Persia is expanding at lightning speed, as you head farther north to Highway 7 and into Richmond Hill, you'll spot more bakeries and hole-in-the-wall kabob joints that are so new the old signs from the previous businesses are still up. There is a thriving Iranian community here, which means there's good food.
One of my favourite ways to enjoy Iranian food is to order an assortment of grilled kabobs, have it with some baghali piolo (rice with fava beans), grilled tomatoes, and deck the table with an assortment of stews and sides like: kashk e bademjan (eggplant and walnut dip), or eggy mirzaghasemi dip with tomato, and plenty of mast khiar (a thick yoghurt dip with mint and cucumber) for cooling.
While there are many restaurants that have kabobs on the menu, there is one outlier that does it best. In my opinion, a great kabob is equal parts high quality meat, a super powered marinade or spice mix, and experience when it comes to cooking over an open fire.
The best kabob meals are produced when the grilling is done as traditionally as possible, meat and vegetables punctured with steel skewers and cooked over a gentle but fiery bed of charcoal.
I was first introduced to Pars Grill over a decade ago in its original location at Yonge Street and John Street. It's a tiny takeout counter where owner Esmaeil Hoseinzadeh served up some of the most tender chicken and beef kabobs over rice.
Hoseinzadeh was born in Tabriz, an Iranian Azerbaijan province once known as a central Silk Road market. His wife, Nadereh, is from Iran's capital, Tehran. Along with their two daughters, they moved to Canada in 2001.
Hoseinzadeh has cooked for most of his life, he told me about being inspired by his grandparents who owned and operated a kabob cart back home.
"They would serve charcoal kabobs with large pieces of bread," Hoseinzadeh described.
After moving here, Hoseinzadeh quickly became a staple name in the Iranian restaurant community. He's consulted all over, sometimes helping chefs with their charcoal setup and preparing a menu.
At the time, I was living a quick car ride down Yonge Street, so I found myself regularly in his shop when I had a craving for koobideh kabob: ground beef mixed with spices and onions, or the tender barg kabob made with tenderloin that had been marinated overnight.
Each skewer of meat came with a kiss of charcoal essence, perfumed with smoke and glistening with caramelized knobs of fat that had slowly rendered from the hot carbon.
I moved a few years later and lost touch with Hoseinzadeh's restaurant, but when I finally had a chance to go back, I had learned that he had closed his operation. I later discovered that he had moved farther up to a new location in a plaza off Major Mackenzie Drive.
'Passion for charcoal grilling'
"When I moved here I finally had a chance to expand my menu and get better with my passion of charcoal grilling," Hoseinzadeh said.
With a larger kitchen and bigger grill setup, Hoseinzadeh perfected his charcoal methods and expanded the menu.
"I really like the sour taste of Iranian food from the eastern side," he said while serving me a plate of torsh kabob.
I was familiar with Iranian torsh kabob prior to Pars Grill, but Hoseinzadeh's version is vastly superior to others I have tried. It is a traditional kabob that originated in Gilan and Mazandaran, two coastal regions in northeastern Iran cradling the Caspian Sea.
Chunks of tenderloin are bathed in a mixture of yogurt and pomegranate molasses to produce that sour taste signature to Iran. When done right, the meat should be tender and almost falling apart under your fork.
"It is a difficult kabob to master. It takes time and you have to have the right technique" he said.
Hoseinzadeh invited me to the kitchen at Pars Grill to show me how he makes his torsh kabob. Hoseinzadeh's wife and two daugthers, Aylar and Maral help with his operation.
His meat is almost always from Ontario. Hoseinzadeh has been making kabobs for decades and it shows in his speed and efficiency in butchering meat.
He separates leaner pieces of tenderloin from fatty ones and the lean pieces go into his signature barg kabob, It gets coated in a secret spice mixture that contains black pepper, onion, butter, garlic and coriander. It produces a juicy and tender kabob with subtle hits of spice.
The fatty parts go into a bowl along with a healthy dose of yogurt, secret spice mixture, and a house-made pomegranate butter that Hoseinzadeh makes with pomegranate molasses, crushed walnuts, salt and sugar. The mixture has the texture of peanut butter, but is inky black.
"The secret is to massage the meat," he described as he rolled the chunks of tenderloin between his palms, thoroughly coating each piece of meat. The mixture is then left to marinate overnight.
When ordered, the meat is pierced with long steel rods and cooked over the open fire.
"The charcoal brings out the flavour of the pomegranate and the fat. The charcoal is essential to this torsh" Hoseinzadeh said.
There's nothing to the presentation, Hoseinzadeh serves his kabobs with charred whole tomatoes and a salad or rice.
The star here is the kabob, the pomegranate molasses brings sourness and depth to the meat, which tear easily thanks to the overnight marinade.
There's an underlining nutty flavour along with a slight sweetness in each bite. Sweet and sour notes are not typically associated with grilled meats, but here, they work in symphony with the touch of charcoal smoke.
Everything is balanced, the results of a charcoal virtuoso that has spent years honing his marinades and cooking.