Shockingly, the line at Saffron and Rose, the award-winning Persian ice cream shop, is short. While service is fast, the selection is vast, with flavors ranging from their signature orange blossom to white or pink rose to saffron and pistachio, and it can take a while to decide, even though a small cup gets two choices. For many in Los Angeles, a place like this is their introduction to a culture that has, over the past few decades, become a large part of the fabric of the city, and especially the west side. Since 1979, this very block has been the center of the Iranian population here in LA. This is, as it is colloquially called, Tehrangeles.
In 1979, the Islamic Revolution toppled the regime of the Shah of Iran, installing the Muslim theocracy that continues to this day. For many in what had been a fairly liberal society, this was a sign to get out. Over the next few years, tens of thousands made their way to the United States, with a huge plurality settling in Southern California, where there had been a small Persian community since the 1960s. Additional waves of immigration – the most recent coming following the 2009 Green Movement – led new arrivals to join the ranks, clustering in areas already rich in Persian culture, like Los Angeles. Estimates today put the Iranian-American (also called Persian-American) population of the region at around 700,000, with more than 100,000 in the city of Los Angeles itself. This is easily the largest Persian population outside of Iran.
While Iranians of all stripes settled here, the area is especially known as the center of Persian Jewish life. Prior to 1979, Iran had a large and thriving Jewish population. More than 90% of the once 100,000+ strong community left following the revolution, with only about 8,500 remaining in Iran. Overwhelmingly, that community ended up in the Los Angeles area, centered on the west side of Beverly Hills, West LA, Santa Monica, and surrounds.
Persian-owned businesses sprang up along Westwood Boulevard, just south of UCLA, and the area was recognized as Persian Square in honor of those early businesses. For those who want to experience what this culture has to offer, this is the place to come. Restaurants abound, Persian bookstores and antique shops cluster, and emporia specializing in Persian rugs (the best in existence) exists next to markets with fascinating Iranian ingredients and products. And a singular ice cream shop that is the gateway for many residents and visitors.
My day begins at Attari, a sandwich shop directly across the street from Saffron and Rose. This was one of Jonathan Gold’s (the late and great restaurant critic for the LA Times, who was one of the first major newspaper critics to rate food trucks and small stalls) favorite spots. Sandwiches come in small and large sizes on rolls that are both soft and crunchy, with fillings ranging from kebob to shredded meats and vegetarian offerings. I pair mine with hot tea, a must with any Persian meal, and a honey pastry that literally drips with sweetness, and sit in their outdoor patio area right next to the Persian Square historical marker.
For most people, the concept of Persian food begins and ends at kebob. Skewers of juicy meat flame-grilled are indeed found all over the area, but Persian cuisine is so much broader. Shaherzad, just down the street, has classy decor and a huge menu, and I walk in quickly to place an order to take home for dinner. The cuisine features stews, meats, rices, salads, and the ever-present lavash bread. My personal favorite is tachshin, a dish of crispy saffron rice with a layer of meat inside, topped with barberries. I also opt for a stew of beef and yellow split peas called ghaimeh, that is served over rice. You can’t go wrong with either of these, or likely with any of the dozens of menu offerings. (These two dishes were enough to feed four for dinner, with leftovers.)
Next door to Shaherzad is Tochal Market. Regular readers of The Royal Tour will know how much I love market visits as part of my experience in ethnic neighborhoods. This one is no exception. While I don’t purchase saffron (this is the spot to procure it if you want to use the single most expensive per-ounce ingredient in the world), I get some tea, a few spices, fig jam, and lavash, and only barely resist taking all of the pastries home.
Tehrangeles’ central business area stretches along Westwood Boulevard from roughly Wilshire Boulevard in the north to Santa Monica Boulevard in the south. I walk the length, stopping in antique shops, book stores, markets, and, of course, a rug shop. Tousi Rugs is just off Westwood on Santa Monica Boulevard, and consists of huge piles of rugs in a large warehouse. Prices and qualities range the spectrum, as do sizes. I marvel at a beautiful – and HUGE – rug that hangs down an entire two-story wall, and am told that it is a Persian antique that will set me back a mere $400,000. I can afford to browse, though!
While Los Angeles’ Latin and East Asian communities get more love and attention, it is important to recognize that this metropolis is also the center point of the Persian diaspora. A warm people with amazing food and culture, you’ll feel welcome. Back at Saffron and Rose, I opt for the duo of orange blossom and saffron/pistachio, sitting outside in the sun to try to finish my treat before it melts. (I win… barely.) Persian Square, also known as Tehrangeles, is a must-visit for lovers of food and culture, and those interested in experiencing the true melting pot that is LA.
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