Free tea! And $4 hummus: Darband in Center City

Persian food and games at Cedar and Fifth

Ah. So this is the place where the tea’s free.

I’ve been climbing up Fifth heading for this place, at Cedar, near where Balboa Park starts.

And here it is, double the size from what I remember, Darband Fifth Avenue Grill (1556 Fifth Avenue, Center City, 619-230-1001). Persian. People on the patio playing, chess, and backgammon.

Wow. You look through the lighted window. The Persian Empire is right there, filling a wall.

It was big. From Greece to Afghanistan. From Libya to Bulgaria.

Problem: cash reserves small. I only have six bucks aboard right now. So yes, a little worried.

Inside’s like a club. A long table filled with men all chatting like old friends, plus soccer, Africa Cup, looks like, on the TV, steaming plates of kebabs and rice coming out from the kitchen, older couples, students sitting at the other tables.

I go to the high counter in front of the kitchen. Notice all sorts of fresh fruit in the glass cabinet below, including oranges, and hey, pomegranates.

“Six dollars a glass, freshly squeezed,” says the guy. He gives me a menu.

“Uh, have coffee?” I ask.

“No. But we do have tea. It’s free.”

He points to a group of people hovering around an urn.

Oh man. So I have to eat. Checking the menu. Appetizers are $6-9. Things like dolmeh (stuffed grape leaves ($5.95), or tah-deeg (crunchy rice with a stew or other toppings ($5.95-$8.95). And kabobs? Kabob wraps start at $6.50. Mini-plates, single skewers run around $10-$12, and salads start at $6. The main meals can be over twenty. Ooh. Number 32, Darband Special. If only. It has three skewers of chicken, ground sirloin, and tenderloin with basmati rice and other fixin’s. But it goes for $20.95.

So Houston, we have a problem here.

Until, aah. Spot in the apps yogurt dishes for $3 (or $6 large), torshi, a mix of pickles, carrots, cauliflower and eggplant for $4 ($8 large), or hummus ($4/$8). And also soups go for $3 for a cup, $6 for a bowl.

Bowl of veggie soup

I’ll take a small plate of hummus,” I say, and head for the tea urn. Actually, there’s a large teapot and an urn of hot water.

"Just pour a little tea from the pot. It's very strong," says this gent. "Then fill up with the hot water from the urn."

Name’s Anwar...

...Regular here. Originally from Afghanistan. “It is definitely good for you. My grandfather, he’s 100 years old. Has drunk tea all his life. Loves it after dinner with a piece of bakhlava. Uh, remember. It’s strong.”

Just as well he warned me. Because even putting, say, half an inch of tea in the glass cup, and filling the rest with hot water, and tossing in a couple of teaspoons of white sugar, it’s still quite strong.

But the hummus is beautiful. The garbanzo, sesame, garlic, lemon combo is surprisingly filling by the time you dip all of the slices of lavash flatbread they give you into it and chomp.

So I sit, chomp, slurp, and stare at that map of Persia. Never knew they had such an empire.

“That was under Cyrus the Great,” says this guy who sees what I’m gawping at. His name’s Cyrus too. He's the manager.

“Cyrus was the first ruler to make basic human rights the law. Including freedom of religion. And his grandson Darius built the Suez Canal, 2,500 years ago! Except it had a different name.”

Conversation takes off from there. You get to realize how proud Iranians are of their past. Maybe specially in these stressed-out times.

I remember Tony...

...Tony Dowlat the owner, when I go up to pay. Must have been in here five years ago.

“We’re expanding,” he says. “We’ve taken over the space of the bookshop next door. It should be open later this year.”

In these times that’s good to hear.

So it’s great. The hummus is a deal, and someday I’m bringing the beautiful Carla back for that twenty-buck Darband Special. But what gives me the warmest feeling is the free tea. It’s a gesture. Makes you feel like, well, a member of the club.

Moied and Hussam, students from Dubai, came for the Darband Special...

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Darn you, Ed! I just finished dinner. But after reading this, my mouth is watering. I know the location well, but I never went in. But now I will!

You could find me there, DW. For one thing, I want to learn backgammon

I did go there, and had the same hummus and free tea. It was tasty, filling and easy on the wallet. Cyrus was warm and friendly. I had a pleasant time, and left smiling.

That's great. They're good people. Hmm. Cup of tea would be good right now.

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