On any given weekday during lunch, the intimate space at Kuluck Persian Restaurant is packed with a wide mix of people speaking in a cacophony languages, both familiar and foreign. Middle Eastern women with loosely wrapped head scarves chat in Arabic or Farsi, men in yarmulkes converse with their wives in Hebrew, sunburnt Canadian tourists in shorts and T-shirts discuss travel plans, and tables filled with men and women in business suits can be overhead hashing out contracts.
Layered over the din of the lunch rush are the rhythmic beats and poppy vocals of modern Persian music.
And then there's the fragrance: Bold exotic spices, like cinnamon, turmeric, and citrus, waft through the air. It's a mix of South Asian and Mediterranean aromas.
The sensory experience borders on the overwhelming at Kuluck, brimming with the sights, sounds, and flavors of one of the oldest civilizations on the planet.
Originally opened in Tamarac eight years ago as a restaurant and lounge catering to the South Florida Iranian community, with belly dancers and blaring Persian pop music, the venue was the brainchild of musician Hamid Shirdel, who was supposed to handle just the entertainment while his two partners handled the rest.
As is frequently the case, plans changed, and Shirdel took over the entire operation. Fortunately, the guitarist and keyboardist, who was used to organizing festivals and nightlife events, grew up with a penchant for cooking and a finely tuned palate. He quickly began incorporating recipes passed down from his mother and grandmother and eventually moved the spot to its current location in Plantation.
It's now a true family-run restaurant: Shirdel's father is often seen greeting customers while Shirdel's kids serve tables.
For lunch, the restaurant serves a buffet that offers a range of traditional Persian dishes for $11.95. It spans from hummus and stuffed grape leaves to Basmati and raisin rice to chicken and beef kebabs to Persian stews like khoresht ghaimeh.
A flavorful mix of beef and yellow split peas in a fragrant red sauce, khoresht ghaimeh is scented with turmeric, cinnamon, and ground dried lime. It is traditionally topped with French fries, and Kuluck's version is offered just so for dinner, though the lunch buffet includes several other authentic stews.
Another customary option is ghormesh sabzi. Known as beef and green herb stew, it combines the same ground lime (along with cinnamon and turmeric, it's ubiquitous in Persian cuisine) with beef and kidney beans. Flavored with parsley, green onion, and shallots, it's fresh and savory.
With a consistency that's slightly thinner than an Indian curry, these dishes take several hours to cook.
"Persian food is patient," says Shirdel. "The recipes went from my grandmother to my mom to me. She could always tell if something was done according to taste; I had to figure out how to write out the measurements for the restaurant. I can tell if a step was missed as soon as I taste it. Food is like music; the ingredients can be the same, but it's about how you put it together."
Just like the stews, rice is a big component of Persian cuisine, and Kuluck offers multiple varieties.
Tah-dig is one of the more popular versions. Referred to as crispy rice, it's basically a tall cake of rice encased by the crunchy golden layer that forms around sides when cooking. For an additional dollar, you can add your choice of stew or, for another three bucks, fesenjoon, a sweet and sour stew made of chicken, walnuts, and pomegranate syrup.
Go early, if you want to try it.
"It's so popular, we can hardly keep up," Shirdel says of the rice.
Sabzi polo is another favorite rice dish. Served with either salmon or fried tilapia, it mixes cilantro, baby dill, leeks, green onion, and garlic with Basmati rice for a combination that's fresh and nutrient-dense. It's usually consumed with friends and family for Nowruz (Iranian New Year) on the spring equinox.
It's a holiday Kuluck celebrates every year — this year, 450 people showed up for the event. Although Shirdel now focuses on the restaurant, he frequently hosts parties and is even working on putting together a Persian festival in Boca Raton next year. (He was heavily involved in another Persian fest in West Palm Beach a few years back.)
Though his background is in the entertainment industry, for Shirdel, cooking and the restaurant industry was a natural fit.
"Like entertaining, a restaurant is kind of entertainment too," he says. "When people taste good food, you see their reaction. It's nice to satisfy someone like that."