Chello Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico

My friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver Stands in Front of Chello Grill Mediterranean Cuisine on Cutler

Persian cuisine has been described as “poetry on a plate” and “a pretext to break into verse.”  Persian history is replete with a large repertoire of literary quotes about food and drink.  Even when the subject of a poem wasn’t about food, a poet’s appreciation for Persian cuisine often inspired the inclusion of culinary terms.  Take for example fifteenth-century Persian poet Bu-Isaq of Shiraz who described his beloved as: “lithe as a fish, eyes like almonds, lips like sugar, a chin like an orange, breasts like pomegranates, a mouth like a pistachio” and so forth.”

“Surely,” I thought, “contemporary poets can also be inspired to put to verse and song their sentiments about the loves of their lives using food in descriptive terms.  Diligent searches revealed that the twain apparently doesn’t cross.  I did, however, find an inspiring poem by Grammy award-winning hip-hop artist Busta Rhymes who pays tribute to his favorite food (and one of mine): “Mrs. Fried Chicken you was my addiction. Dripping with high cholest- Like Greeks with his falafel, Italian with his to-mato pasta. What roti is to a rasta. Trapping me; You and your friend mac’ and cheese. Candy yams, collard greens but you knocking me to my knees…”

Skewered Meats and Vegetables

My friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” and I were nearly inspired to break into verse and song ourselves the minute we walked into Chello Grill and espied a shaker of sumac, a rich red colored spice with a bright lemony flavor.  We’ve both been known to lament the relative meagerness of sumac on Persian and Middle Eastern foods we enjoy.  Even though it’s considered an essential ingredient in cooking throughout the region, all too often it’s used in moderation (at least by our standards).   We knew we’d like the Chello Grill the moment we discovered that shaker of sumac.  It gave us confidence that other Persian spices we love on Persian cuisine–cardamom, saffron, garlic, turmeric and yes, even cumin–would be used in the preparation of dishes we would soon be enjoying.

There’s much to like about the Chello Grill, the brainchild of the entrepreneurial duo of Hasan Aslami and Behrad Etemadi who are becoming quite the restaurant impresarios in the Duke City and beyond.  Several years ago they created Pizza 9, a burgeoning franchise  named by  Franchise Business Review  among its “best of the best,” one of the top 200 franchises in America for 2016.  Hoping to duplicate the success they had with Pizza 9, they plan to franchise Chello Grill with the goal of expanding across the Southwest.  The Chello Grill is located in the Pavilions at San Mateo shopping center, occupying the storefront which once housed Boston Market.

Chello Doh: Chicken Kabob, Sheesh Kabob, Rice and Vegetables

The Chello Grill operates much like a cafeteria.  Instead of taking your seat at a vacant table, you’ll walk up to the counter where you’ll undoubtedly gaze longingly at the skewers and vegetables under glass before deciding whether to have Chello Yek (one kabob and one side), Chello Doh (two kabobs and two sides) or Chello Seh (three kabobs and two sides).  Chello, by the way, comes from the Farsi word for rice.  Rice is indeed a prominent part of every meal as is naan, a fresh-baked flat bread more closely associated with Indian cuisine. Available kabobs include koobideh, ground meat seasoned with minced onion, salt and pepper; chicken seasoned with turmeric, paprika, sumac, salt, garlic and several other spices; and shish kabob, skewered beef along with mushrooms, onions, tomatoes and peppers.

27 June 2017: Both Bruce and I enjoyed the chicken kabob above all else.  The characteristic yellowish hue courtesy of turmeric is punctuated by the characteristic char of a grill.  The chicken straddles the fine line between being moist and juicy and being on the desiccated side.  A little more either way and it wouldn’t be quite as enjoyable.  All too often the shish kabob served in Persian and Middle Eastern restaurants tends to be on the dry side, courtesy of too much time spent on a grill that’s too hot.  Not so at the Chello Grill where the grilled beef is moist and delicious.  So are the grilled vegetables.  A large mound of rice, more than one person can eat, completes the plate.

Top: Naan; Bottom: Mast O Khiar (Cucumber & Yogurt Dip) and Hummus

27 June 2017: Our sides ranged from very good (the mirza ghasemi, a grilled eggplant and tomato dip with plenty of garlic) to good (mast o khiar, a cucumber and yogurt dip similar to Greek tzadziki) to unremarkable (a rather dry hummus).  The freshly baked naan is much larger than its Indian restaurant counterpart and quite a bit crispier.  Roughly the size of a medium pizza, it goes well with any of the sides, but is just too crispy to use “sandwich style” with the kabobs.

2 August 2017: Long before he became an outstanding IT manager I know, my friend Nader Khalil worked as a chef in Phoenix.  He truly understands the nuances of ingredients, seasoning, preparation and the multitudinous factors which play into a great meal.  Alas, he hasn’t exactly been won over by some of the Middle Eastern restaurants to which I’ve introduced him.  Their common flaw has been in preparing and serving overdone meats which obviously spent too much time over high heat.  As a consequence they were on the dry side.  By the time he finished his inaugural meal (sheesh kabob and mirza ghasemi), he had declared Chello the best Middle Eastern restaurant in Albuquerque.  The sheesh kabob, Koobideh and chicken kabob were prepared to the perfect level of doneness for him.  That’s high praise coming from someone who knows his stuff.

Shirazi Salad, Feta Sabzi and Freshly Baked Naan

2 August 2017: New to the Chello Grill menu is a daily stew served over saffron rice.  We stewed over the fact that we didn’t notice that  option until after having ordered our meal and sides.  Certainly we’ll try the daily stew soon. It’s my practice to work my way through a restaurant’s menu which meant two different sides.  Though my calendar showed three afternoon meetings, I ordered a side dish sure to wreck my breath.  Called Feta Sabzi, it featured fresh basil with red onions and feta cheese (ask for a side of onion vinaigrette).  This is a terrific trio.  The basil actually negates the sharpness of the fetid fromage and astringency of the red onion.  It’s an eye-opening troika in many ways.  The shirazi salad (cucumber, onion, tomato and mint) is a perfect summer salad–refreshing, delicious and oh, so fresh.

Service at Chello Grill is exceptional with a friendly and attentive staff at your beck and call.  As with Pizza 9, the Chello Grill recognizes the value of customer orientation and good value.  Don’t be surprised if this Persian treasure expands similar to its elder sibling and that someday an inspired poem will rhapsodize about that chicken kabob.

Chello Grill
5010 Cutler Avenue, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 881-2299
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 2 August 2017
1st VISIT: 27 June 2017
COST: $$
BEST BET: Chicken Kabob, Sheesh Kabob,  Mast O Khiar, Naan, Mirza Ghasemi, Shirazi Salad, Feta Sabzi, Koobideh

Chello Grill Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Pars Cuisine – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pars Persian & Mediterranean Cuisine on the Northwest Corner of I25 and Jefferson East of Singer

“Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse — and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness —
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.”

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

The imagery inspired by this enduring poem–most notably “a jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou”–can be read on so many levels–some literal and some allegorical.  In the literal sense, these few lines may evoke images of a romantic dalliance in an idyllic wilderness, its lines undoubtedly kindling intense ardor.  In the allegorical sense, some scholars believe one of the core themes of The Rubaiyat is a reiteration of a passage from The Gospel of Luke: “eat, drink and be merry.”

Focusing solely on the literal translation, perhaps the modern day urban equivalent of a romantic outdoors tryst is a meal at Pars Cuisine which specializes in the Persian food Khayyam enjoyed during his time.  At Pars (synonymous with Persian), that cuisine is served in a milieu which may inspire a little romance in its own right.

A beautiful ambience at Pars Cuisine

A beautiful ambience at Pars Cuisine

When Pars opened its doors in 1984, it wasn’t exactly a restaurant which inspired romantic date night moments.  Ensconced in a tiny Montgomery Plaza storefront with a seating capacity of only 13 tables, few visitors lingered at the diminutive diner to look lovingly into their date’s eyes after a movie at the now defunct Montgomery Plaza Theater.  Most of their affection was directed toward the inspired Persian, Greek and Turkish cuisine.

When they first launched Pars Cuisine a quarter of a century ago, owners Mohammad and Shahnaz Tafti operated under a unique business model.  Mohammad worked as a teacher while Shahnaz worked for the city.  He ran the restaurant at night while she ran it in the daytime.  Their cuisine was too good and their drive to succeed too focused to be contained in a small setting.

In 2001, the Taftis moved to their current location adjacent to the Interstate (I-25).  Now situated at 4320 The 25 Way, N.E., a sprawling office and retail complex exemplifying urban infill at its best, Pars Cuisine was transformed from a great place to grab a gyros to an upscale, fine-dining restaurant everyone in the city wanted to experience.  When Pars launched at its new location, it was the toughest ticket in town (with all due respect to Lobo basketball).

Mini Mazeh Combination for two people

Mini Mazeh Combination for two people

After five years, Pars Cuisine expanded again.  A two-year, $150,000 expansion nearly doubled seating capacity to 120 guests and more importantly, made each meal experience even more memorable.  The luxurious offerings now include a banquet room available with a capacity of up to 50 for private or corporate parties. The private banquet room includes full bar, music, decor and some of the best service in town.

The expansion also meant the inclusion on the menu of special green, white and black teas prepared at a Samovar bar (Samovar refers to the artful heating unit used to heat the tea).  The Samovar bar menu lists large premium tea leaves, espresso, specialty drinks, international and domestic beer and wine. You can partake of those teas out in the patio or in one of two private tea rooms.

The restaurant’s epicenter is one of the most opulent and classy settings in town, where families and couples sit together on a cushioned floor under a billowing silk tent and listen to the bubbling fountain while they partake of exquisite cuisine.  Chair-backs on each cushion provide comfort and support.  This beautiful backdrop is visible from other more conventional seating areas.

Falafel with a yogurt sauce

Falafel with a yogurt sauce

If you’re looking for something even more exotic, you can move out to the hookah bar on the outdoor patio where you can choose from an assortment of shishas, tobaccos combined with fruit and molasses or honey.  Flavors include mint, jasmine, mango and the restaurant’s best-seller, a mixture of red and green apples.

Exotic entertainment is available on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 6:30PM through closing when belly dancers perform.  While some prudish Americans hold belly dancers in the same esteem as ecdysiasts writhing around a pole, others find it strangely mesmerizing–although most men will admit the challenge of keeping their eyes focused solely on the dancer’s undulating movements which are both sensual and artistic.

The lunch menu is offered Monday through Saturday from 11AM to 3PM, but dinner entrees can also be served at any time upon request.  Both the lunch and dinner menu are ambitious, a wondrous compendium of Middle Eastern delicacies prepared as wonderfully as you’ll find them anywhere in the city.

Soltani serves 1-2 people

Soltani serves 1-2 people

Many couples start with the Mini Mazeh, a combination plate for two, a treasure trove of six sumptuous appetizers: dolmas, hummus, feta cheese and Kalamata olives, falafel, mast o’khiyar and kashk o’bademjoon served with pita bread.  The dolmas are the sole appetizer not made on the premises, a fairly common practice in Mediterranean restaurants who don’t always have the time and inclination to perform the arduous, labor-intensive task.  The falafel is among the very best in the city, two moist oblong seasoned chickpea fritters that are antithetical to most you’ll find in Albuquerque in that they’re actually excellent.

The Mast o’Khiyar, a traditional Iranian side dish made with mint, cucumber and yogurt is served cool and is very much reminiscent of Greek tzatziki.  The Kashk o’bademjoon, a puree of toasted eggplant with sauteed onions, garlic, mint and kashk (Persian cream) is rich and delicious.  The hummus is simply sublime, a perfect puree of garbanzo beans, garlic, sesame butter, lemon juice and olive oil.  This combination plate is one of the Duke City’s very best ways to start a meal.

Combinations seem to work very well at Pars where an entree platter for one or two people is one of the restaurant’s most popular offerings.  The Soltani is a marriage of barg (skewered filet mignon or chicken breast) and kabob koobideh (skewered seasoned organic beef) broiled under an open fire.  Served with grilled tomato and the best saffron-tinged basmati rice in the city, it is plated artistically and covers a large platter.

Fesenjoon--sauteed walnuts in pomegranate sauce, a fabulous stew!

Fesenjoon–sauteed walnuts in pomegranate sauce, a fabulous stew!

The filet mignon is perfectly seasoned, moist and tender.  Make that fork-tender.  So is the kabob which is also juicy and spiced very well with Mediterranean spices that don’t impart the piquancy New Mexicans tend to associate with spiciness.  If it’s not already on your table, ask for sumac, a purplish maroon spice with an interesting tart-savory flavor akin to a mix of paprika and lemon.  Lavish it on the filet mignon and the kabob and thank me later.

I’m thankful for the encyclopedic knowledge of a veteran waiter who pointed me toward the Fesenjoon, a stew made with sauteed walnuts in pomegranate sauce served with chicken and basmati rice.  Though the combination of pomegranates and walnuts is unusual in American dishes, it is a popular Persian combination.  The Fesenjoon, which is simultaneously delicate and rich, is often used as a meat condiment or dip.  As a stew entree, it is also unbeatable.  The chicken is three cut-up boneless breasts (or at least portions thereof) topped with a thick “gravy” of pomegranates and walnuts.  That gravy has a slightly tangy, but absolutely rich and delicious flavor.  It’s unlike any other stew in the Duke City with the characteristic heart and soul-warming qualities that make stew an endearing comfort food favorite.  It’s so good, you might have to force yourself to order something else.

Housemade Key Lime Pie at Pars Cuisine

Housemade Key Lime Pie at Pars Cuisine

The basmati rice at most restaurants doesn’t usually warrant mention, but Pars basmati is in a class by itself.  It is lightly coated with oil or more likely butter which prevented the rice from clumping.  Every long grain of rice can be picked up by itself without bothering its neighbor grain.  It’s wholly unlike the dry, boring rice other restaurants serve.

Desserts also have a personality all their own.  With few exceptions, they’re made in-house by Shahnaz, the culinary heart of the restaurant.  They’re also not made in the cloying, sugar-overdosed manner of many American desserts.  Instead, desserts are sweetened by rosewater.  Sometimes known as rose syrup, rosewater is a by-product of the production of rose oil which is used in perfume.  Rosewater has a very distinctive flavor and is heavily used in Persian cuisine, especially in desserts.  The Pars menu includes traditional Persian ice cream which is housemade vanilla ice cream with pistachio, saffron and rosewater.  As appetizing as it sounds, the savvy waitstaff will often offer a sample to children wanting to try it.  It prevents trauma among children who haven’t been previously exposed to rosewater and its distinctive (but thoroughly delicious) differences.

Persian style baklava

Persian style baklava

Also among the dessert offerings are baklava–both the traditional Greek baklava and Persian baklava which is made with rosewater, but not with phyllo dough.  The Persian baklava is topped with ground pistachios and isn’t nearly as sweet as its honey-flavored Greek counterpart.

The key lime pie, also made in-house, is one of the best pies of any sort in New Mexico, a rich, tangy and thoroughly enjoyable treat. It is kept in a special refrigerator to prevent it from melting.  That’s how rich it is.

Omar Khayyam may not have written any his lyrical magic specifically for Pars Cuisine, but the spirit of his words live on with every dining excursion to one of Albuquerque’s very best Mediterranean restaurants–make that one of the best restaurants of any genre.

Pars Cuisine
4320 The Way, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 345-5156
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 1 August 2009
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Mini Mazeh Combination, Falafel, Fesenjoon, Soltani, Persian Paklava, Key Lime Pie

Pars Cuisine Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato