These days, when word gets out about a new restaurant on York, it comes with a set of expectations: exposed brick and beams, precious little terrariums, Edison bulbs casting wholly insufficient light, mismatched thrift-store cutlery, trucker-hatted and gratuitously mustachioed brohemian dudes with their meticulously unkempt girlfriends.
And then there is U Pick Café, the little kabob shop that recently opened on the still-quiet west end of York to no fanfare beyond a jaunty "Grand Opening" banner strung up between two slouching, graffiti-covered "For Lease" signs.
U Pick Café, which has a several-year-old sister location on Lake in Pasadena, occupies the corner spot in a desolate strip mall a couple doors down from a sleazy motel, less than half a mile from the bustling center of the new York. The two storefronts to its left are empty, the ghostly remnants of a massage parlor and a check cashing/Internet café/vape shop. To U Pick’s right is a gigantic laundromat, dimly lit and mostly empty.
U Pick, though, is bright and pleasant, unassuming but inviting. It’s a simple shop: open kitchen behind glass counter with a big pictorial menu board on one wall and about 10 tables. At first the menu looks as simple as the décor — there are lule kabobs and wraps and a falafel plate, hummus and tabbouleh and dolma, as at other Middle Eastern/Mediterranean restaurants around town. And those items are good and reasonably priced, perfect for a quick and easy dinner.
So it seems that York has a new kabob shop, probably not the type of thing to launch a gentrification panic but a welcome addition to this stretch. Yet if you look a little more closely at the board, you will see, in the bottom right corner of that big pictorial menu, a section you might not have initially noticed: Soups & Stews. Maybe that isn’t the most immediately enticing category, but the two items listed there — gheymeh and ghormeh sabzi — are destination dishes. They are distinctly Persian stews, and neither is available elsewhere outside a couple of somewhat more upscale spots in Glendale (nor are they available at the U Pick in Pasadena).
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Both gheymeh and ghormeh sabzi are typically made with stewed lamb or beef, but at U Pick they’re both vegan. Lest you fear this is a grab at the crowds down the street, the owner tells us that it's because both of his daughters-in-law are vegan.
Withholding the meat from these stews does not kill the flavor. The ghormeh sabzi, with its parsley and cilantro and kidney beans and dried lemon, is earthy and grassy and herbaceous and just a little bit tart. As brightly flavorful as the ghormeh sabzi is, the gheymeh is even brighter. The base is split pea and tomato, in just the right proportions to bring it to the color of fall leaves. It is hearty but not heavy, and powerfully satisfying. Of the two, the gheymeh is the one with a bit more punch, a little less subtlety and more authority.
Grab some lavash, spoon in a bit of bright stew and a few grains of rice, and eat. Then walk back to Avenue 51 and have Scoops for dessert.
U Pick Cafe, 4628 York Blvd., Highland Park; (323) 344-7443; upickcafe.com