At Persian restaurant Sadaf, located in a plain, single-story building along Encino’s bustling main drag of Ventura Boulevard, a manager wearing a crisp black button-down greets diners with a smile and slight bow. Under the central dining room’s wide brick archways, a guitarist strums “Bésame Mucho.” A single red rose sits in the middle of each table. Families and friends fill the brightly lit room, sharing rows of succulent kebabs, mountains of steaming rice, and aromatic, comforting Iranian stews called khoresht. While kebabs, flavored rice, and tahdig are often the most common dishes ordered in Persian restaurants, khoresht more accurately expresses the soul of Iranian cuisine, with its depth of flavors, textures, and variety of fresh and dried ingredients, like herbs, vegetables, unripe sour grapes, or sun-dried limes.
This scene paints a picture of why an Iranian family has continued to operate some of the most successful Persian restaurants in Southern California across two generations. Sadaf Salout, a second-generation restaurateur and owner of Sadaf in Encino and Thousand Oaks, and her twin sister, Darya Salout, the manager of Darya of Orange and Santa Monica, have been living and breathing the restaurant business since they were children. Their father, Ali Salout, and his brother, Shawn Saloot, originally founded Darya restaurant in Orange back in 1986, a few dozen miles from the heart of Tehrangeles, helping to establish Iranian restaurant culture in Southern California.
Upon arriving in the U.S. from Iran in 1985 with a degree in economics he couldn’t put to use, Ali found a job at one of Los Angeles’s seminal Persian restaurants, Shamshiri Grill. Although he knew nothing about cooking — not even how to boil rice, let alone the inner workings of the restaurant business — Ali was eager to learn. When he found out his wife was pregnant with twins, he decided to open a restaurant of his own, a place he hoped would provide him the means to support the highest level of education his daughters could seek to achieve. In 1986, Ali opened Darya in Orange with the help of his wife and his brother.
In the 1980s, Southern California residents were just becoming familiar with their new Iranian neighbors fleeing their country after the 1979 revolution; many Angelenos were still widely unfamiliar with Persian cuisine. The Salouts knew that their dream of having a successful restaurant would take more than having exceptional food and service; it would hinge on their ability to introduce diners to a cuisine possibly unfamiliar to them. “If you want to play football, you work to be the best football player in the world. If you want to play an instrument, you work to be the best musician,” says Ali. “I wanted to have the best Iranian restaurant, and many know the amount of nights I stayed up in the restaurant to make it number one.”
All members of the Salout family remember the countless hours and effort Ali and Shawn spent trying to make the restaurant successful. “When I was little, [my father] worked 72-hour shifts, so we wouldn’t see him for three days, and then he’d come home and sleep 24 hours,” Sadaf says. “My sister and I were little and we’d climb on him and try to wake him by pouring water on his face, but he was so tired that he’d just sleep for 24 hours straight.”
During that time, the Darya restaurants drew the attention of local Iranians and non-Iranians alike. Before long, people began traveling from farther away, coming from various parts of Los Angeles and San Diego to find some of the best Persian food in the area. (The family opened a location in La Jolla in 1995 but later sold it in 2001.)
Almost 40 years later, Darya’s grand dining rooms in Orange, mirroring the traditional fine dining establishments of Iran, are adorned with crystal chandeliers, faux marble columns, and ornate molding. The restaurant still serves the family’s signature dishes like fesenjan, a rich, tangy, maroon stew made of finely ground walnuts, tart pomegranate molasses, and slow-boiled chicken breast. The juicy chicken kebabs — a staff and diner favorite — are made with tender and flavorful chicken breast, marinated in Ali’s saffron-based sauce and then grilled over an open flame.
Both daughters made their father’s dream come true and received their MBAs. Throughout that time, their hearts hummed for the family business. At the age of 26, Sadaf followed in her father’s footsteps and ventured to open her own restaurant. (Knowing how taxing the restaurant industry is, Ali pleaded for her to do anything else, but she refused.) Determined to have it be just as successful, Sadaf opened Sadaf Encino in 2012 and then Sadaf Thousand Oaks in 2019. With Ali’s sacred recipes and Sadaf’s marketing background from a previous role, she chose to create what she calls a modern Persian dining experience.
At Sadaf, diners are able to get a vegetarian version of all three stews, while Darya only offers a vegetarian fesenjan. “I tried to move forward with the times, and that also shows in the menu,” Sadaf says. “Offering the kebab wraps, vegetarian options, vegan options, gluten-free options — these are things we’ve had to adjust.”
Sadaf went back to school to receive a doctorate in psychology after opening Sadaf Encino. Today, she drives an hour and a half from her home to her restaurants each morning; at the end of the day, she returns home to her own daughters, who are also twins.
In Tehrangeles, the moniker for the city home to the largest Iranian diaspora outside of Iran, with approximately 700,000 Iranian residents, Angelenos are lucky to have access to a wide range of Iranian foods, including freshly baked breads and rice dishes; khoresht made with lamb, beef, chicken, beans, and vegetables; saffron- and pistachio-laden ice creams and other sweets; and more. In spite of this variety, the spotlight has long lingered on kebabs — juicy skewers of meat served with basmati rice and grilled tomatoes or tahdig — rice that is cooked in a pot so that a crispy crust forms at the bottom. While these more well-known foods may be deserving of their popularity, khoresht is the unsung hero in Persian cuisine.
Khoresht requires an extensive amount of time to prepare and is labor-intensive. When most Iranians want khoresht, they will make the stews at home, spending days on preparation steps so the flavors are able to properly marinate. There’s even a phrase in Persian that explains that exact point when the dish has reached the right stage — “ja oftadeh,” which means “it’s fallen into place.”
Not all Iranian restaurants have the resources or incentive to prepare these stews. As a result, some restaurants avoid making khoresht, but Salout’s restaurants refuse to cut corners. To ensure consistency in the quality of all the khoresht, Ali developed all of the recipes; one chef at each restaurant is tasked with replicating the stews to have the exact color, texture, and flavor of Ali’s originals. Sadaf says that to test that the khoresht has ja oftadeh, chefs spend more than a day making the stews. “Once it sets, that’s when you get that flavor of that home-cooked khoresht that people love,” Sadaf says.
At Darya and Sadaf, diners can find three different types of khoresht. In addition to the fesenjan, they can also get ghormeh sabzi, the crown jewel of khoresht, a stew of earthy sauteed fresh herbs, sour sun-dried limes, kidney beans, and chunks of tender veal. They can also order the gheimeh bademjan, a vibrant, tomato-based stew with sauteed whole eggplants, yellow split peas, dried limes, and chunks of beef. A combination platter allows one to sample all three khoresht atop crispy tahdig or fluffy basmati rice flecked with saffron. As is customary, the dishes are served in generous portions and meant to be shared family style.
Beyond the stews, the Salout family restaurants serve quintessential Persian starters. The kashke bademjan, which the family calls the eggplant delight, is sauteed eggplant mixed with yogurt and topped with fried garlic and onions, sauteed mint, and creamed whey. The velvety eggplant, caramelized onions, and tangy whey create a comforting and exciting balance of flavors and textures. The mast-o musir, a tart and creamy plain yogurt mixed with minced shallots, can be eaten alongside rice and khoresht or lavash. The sabzi khordan — a platter of mixed herbs including mint, basil, watercress, and tarragon — adds freshness to heaps of rice and kebabs.
As much as the Salout family restaurants center exceptional khoresht, they also feature the kebabs. Like the juicy chicken kebabs, the salmon filet is marinated in Ali’s saffron sauce and then grilled over an open flame — a tender and buttery main dish often served with sabzi polo, an herb-packed rice that can be made with dill, parsley, cilantro, and chives. The soltani, named because it is a combination fit for a sultan, is a strip of barg, or filet mignon, and a strip of koobideh, or seasoned ground beef minced with onions. For those who are eager to try it all, a combination platter includes three meat and fish options together.
With traditions embedded by their father and uncle, Darya and Sadaf hope to take their family legacy even further. After begging to work in the restaurants since she and her sister were 10 years old, Darya Salout officially joined the family business in 2021. Today, she has a wide range of responsibilities, including marketing and taking charge of menu updates that juxtapose familiar and traditional dishes alongside reimagined recipes. On her cocktail menu, she infuses Persian spices and flavors with a variety of spirits in drinks like a saffron pineapple martini.
For the Salout sisters, the family restaurants have always been a place of joy and comfort. “I always tell my staff, when someone comes in, treat them like you would your mother,” says Sadaf. “If a customer comes in and orders takeout and is sitting there, offer them a complimentary glass of tea as you would in your house.”
With a hot cup of tea and a tangy bowl of khoresht, Sadaf and Darya are a reminder for so many of what Tehrangeles can be: a home away from home.