Imagine a kitchen that’s not unlike your own, only bigger and better equipped, with a cash box on the counter and a menu on the wall. Imagine the air thick with ginger, cumin and cinnamon. Now imagine a friend—your most hospitable, generous friend—standing before a flotilla of simmering pots, calling out hello as you walk through the door.
This, in a nutshell, is the Pomegranate Kitchen experience.
Don’t let the name fool you: It is a kitchen. You might have been thinking that with a name like Pomegranate Kitchen it must be a restaurant, like Fred’s Kitchen Restaurant & Speakeasy in Arden or the Kountry Kitchen in Morehead City. But restaurants tend to have tables and chairs, and Pomegranate Kitchen does not. Instead of chairs it has an agreement with its neighbor, Straw Valley Café. Buy your lunch downstairs, eat it upstairs. Or you can eat it on the outside patio or in your car. You will be tempted to eat it while you’re waiting for your change.
Before you go, you should know how things work at Pomegranate Kitchen. Each day the menu boasts three stews and three rices and a few other sundry items, including Persian ice cream and olives. Last time I was there, the stews available were pomegranate (Fesenjoon), smoked eggplant (Mirza Ghassemi) and herb (Ghorme Sabzi). The rices were basmati rice, lentil rice, and brown rice mixed with the veggie of the day (on this particular day it was roasted squash). A serving of stew and rice a) costs $9.50; and b) is enough for at least two meals, maybe three. You place your order, and then you watch as your meal is put together. All the ingredients are locally sourced, and the stews and rices are made fresh each day.
Owner and cook Mally Rafizadeh opened Pomegranate Kitchen in June of 2010. A Persian native of Iran, she’s never been to cooking school and didn’t cook growing up. She claims to be constitutionally unable to follow a recipe. She simply has a passion for cooking. Her home state, Khorasan, provides the world with most of its saffron, and saffron is a prime ingredient in Rafizadeh’s repertoire. Her dishes have their roots in traditional Iranian cooking, from all different regions of the country, but she emphasizes that in Iran, every cook prepares food her own way. Ask a hundred cooks to make rice, she says—just rice, water, and a little oil—and each will give you a bowl of rice that tastes a little bit different from all of the others.
The menu is set daily, depending on what Rafizadeh finds at the local markets, though the pomegranate and smoked eggplant stews seem to be constants. Standing in line as you await your order, you encounter serious Pomegranate aficionados, people who can’t go a week without coming in for some of Rafizadeh’s basmati rice with carrots and orange peel or a bowl of Aash Reshteh, a hearty noodle soup.
Located at 5504 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd. in Durham, Pomegranate Kitchen can be a little bit hard to find. It’s part of the row of shops that front highway 15-501 (the most visible landmarks are the Once and Again consignment store and The Bicycle Chain) collectively known as Straw Valley. You reach the shopping center by turning into the New Hope Commons entrance on Mt. Moriah, passing the back of the Bicycle Chain on your left and then taking the next left after that. There’s semi-ramshackle parking both front and back.
Store hours are Tuesday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Cash and check only.
Frances O’Roark Dowell is a writer who lives with her husband and two sons in Durham, North Carolina.