What’s in a name?

There are two peculiar things about the name of Persian Garden: First, the food isn’t Persian but Afghan. Second, the plants that lend the interior any sort of garden-like feel all seem to be fake. But these things are easy to overlook when you’re in the midst of a pleasant, almost courtly meal. This new restaurant, open a few months in one of the many shopping centers in the nexus of Howe Avenue and Arden Way, is a welcome oasis if you’ve been wandering too long in the chain-store deserts of that area (or if, like me, you frequently go astray at the baffling intersection of Arden Way and Alta Arden Expressway).

Previously, Persian Garden was a Chinese restaurant, and our waiter told us that old patrons still occasionally wander in looking for the Chinese lunch buffet. It’s easy to see how the big, boxy interior could have been a Chinese place. It’s more difficult to understand how these would-be customers would be confused once they got a look at the traditional Afghan garb in a wooden case, the luxurious curtain swags, the golden fruit-shaped decorations around the candles, and the other touches that the new owners have added—including the many faux plants—to change the space. It’s not perfect (all the rich, brown paint in the world can’t quite hide a ceiling of acoustical tile), but it’s more or less successful at dispelling that generic strip-mall feel.

The tasty food, however, is the real draw. Appetizers are particularly enticing and distinctive, especially if you eat meat. The combination plate is a great deal; you get to try any three appetizers on the menu for $10.95. From most to least familiar, we got hummus, sambusas and manto. The hummus was pretty much the usual, but a good version, enlivened by a generous sprinkling of smoky paprika. It was very yummy with a little lemon squeezed over it and scooped up with a piece of warm pita bread.

The other two items we chose turned out to be a festival of ground beef. The sambusa sounded a bit like samosas, based on the menu description, but had only a pastry wrapper and a meaty filling in common with the Indian snack. The sambusa pastry resembled a thin, square wonton wrapper, folded into a triangle, and the meat was a savory ground-beef mixture with greens and a bit of mint. The little triangular packages—fried to a crisp, blistered-brown exterior—were very good when dipped in the yogurt sauce that came in the middle of the combo plate.

The manto, which our server recommended, were a carnivore’s dream: meat-topped meat dumplings. (Yes, really.) A tender pasta-like wrapper enclosed a savory, brownish ground-beef filling. It was topped with yogurt sauce and a reddish, tangy ground-meat sauce over the top. The manto were appealingly messy, unusual and quite delicious.

Entree choices also range from the familiar to the exotic. I ordered a combination of kabob entrees: saffron chicken kabob and koobideh, a ground-beef mixture with onions. Our server must have misheard me, because when my dinner arrived, it was just the saffron chicken. I didn’t say anything, though. (After the appetizer plate, I had come to feel that three kinds of ground-beef mixtures might be enough for me for one evening.)

The saffron chicken, marinated to a rich yellow and browned from the grill, was very good. It was made with thigh meat, not breast, which meant it was juicy and tender rather than dry and chewy, as grilled breast meat is apt to be.

The kabobs, like the other dishes, come with a pile of basmati rice on the side. Our server asked us if we preferred white or brown rice, and I made the mistake of ordering white. If you are in a similar situation, get the brown. It’s not actually what you’re thinking (i.e., chewy, crunchy brown rice), but rather separate-grained and ultra-light basmati rice, cooked with spices that give it an aromatic, warm, cinnamony flavor.

My husband had the excellent brown rice with his dinner, an eggplant-and-beef stew called gheymeh badenjon. The eggplant in it was wonderful, but the beef cubes were a bit dry. It also had yellow split peas and a savory saffron-tomato sauce.

Our courteous and welcoming server recommended we try the house-made tea after dinner, but because we are both over 30 and wimpy, we had to turn down caffeine. We did try desserts, including ferni—a milk pudding that tastes slightly of cardamom and is not unlike panna cotta in texture. It unfortunately tasted a bit of the refrigerator, as if it had been made well in advance.

The baklava was better. Although the server wistfully noted that the baklava goes very well with the tea, it was just fine on its own. Its syrupy sweetness was tempered by the crunch of phyllo and the cinnamony nut filling.

Persian Garden also serves an affordable and interesting lunch menu. There aren’t a lot of Afghan restaurants in Sacramento. (Even this one hides its true nature fairly well in the name.) It’s well worth a visit to taste this cuisine’s intriguing and unusual flavor combinations.