Dec. 13 2013 07:19 PM

Don't forget to ask for tahdig

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Balboa International Market’s chicken kebab
Photo by Mina Riazi

In Korean cuisine, scorched rice is called nurungji. Spanish fare has its socarrat. Iranians dig tahdig—the word literally means "bottom of the pot." Sometimes, cooks will shake things up by incorporating bread or potatoes or even lettuce leaves into the golden crust of rice. Though delicious, these dressed-up versions seldom outdo the plain and simple.

Second-day tahdig is much like first-day meatloaf: not worth your time. The crunchy rice becomes soggy after a night in the fridge and loses its subtle flavor. But then again—unlike the ill-famed slab of meat—bottom-of-the-pot rice rarely lives to see a second day because it's just that good. 

So, when the shirin polo I ordered at Balboa International Market (5907 Balboa Ave. in Clairemont Mesa) arrived without the customary hunk of crisped rice, I felt a little let down. Theyíd just run out. My server kindly reassured me, though, that a new batch would be ready soon. Slightly soothed, I began eating. 

As its name suggests, Balboa International Market is mostly a grocery store. But beyond the aisles of canned veggies and boxed pastries and jugs of pomegranate syrup, there's a short strip of countertop dedicated to hot-food orders. Spaghetti, yellow chunks of tachin and chicken and beef kotlet fill platters in a nearby display case. I suggest skipping the ready-to-eat grub and waiting for the fresher stuff.

This includes ghormeh sabzi, an iconic Iranian khoreshet—or stew—made from several different chopped herbs. Kidney beans and cubes of beef add texture to the slightly tart dish. Usually, restaurant orders of ghormeh sabzi sloppily forgo the dried limes that tack on a layer of bright, tangy flavor. Foolishly, they rely on bottled lime juice—which is like using instant coffee instead of real beans. Balboa Market doesn't skimp on the lip-puckering limu omani, though. It's no surprise, then, that its ghormeh sabzi is solid, especially when spooned over white rice, as it's meant to be enjoyed.

A dozen or so tables form the market's simple and sparsely decorated dining area. It's far from fancy, but, hopefully, you'll be too focused on the food to care. I ordered my shirin polofestive-looking sweet rice made with orange peel, carrots, pistachios and almonds—alongside chicken kebab. The popular dish seems easy enough to prepare: After soaking for several hours in a yogurt, onion and saffron marinade, the skewered chicken is cooked on a grill. 

Balboa Market's chicken kebab was seriously delicious. Crisp, crackly skin locked in moisture, creating meat that stayed tender and flavorful 'til the last bite. Don't forget about two important flavor enhancers that should be on your plate: a whole grilled tomato and a square of salted butter. Altogether, they help achieve kebab greatness. 

As for the tahdig, it finally stopped playing hard-to-get and arrived at my table in a small to-go box. I popped open the lid and found two lacy pieces of the crunchy rice. Sure, I had barely any appetite left, but that's never been a formidable obstacle. With its brittle-like texture and caramelized flavor, the toothsome tahdig ended up being a welcome replacement for dessert. 

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