If you aren't familiar with Persian food, don't let that keep you away from Atlas Mediterranean Kitchen, tucked away in the corner of a shopping center across the parking lot from a 24 Hour Fitness. The proprietor is warm and welcoming and will offer to explain the menu to you as soon as you sit down. The dishes are authentic and you probably won't have tried or even heard of many of them before, like the two stews I ordered (gheymah bademjon and gormeh sabzi). But there are also more familiar meat and rice dishes that even a finicky eater could be persuaded to try.
My favorite dish, gheymah bademjon, is pictured above. Try it if you like umami.
We've been to Atlas twice, once shortly after it opened and once about a year later, and had excellent experiences both times. The restaurant cooks each meal to order, so you'll wait about 20 minutes for your food, but it's worth it. It's a long wait for takeout, but the owner made us feel welcome and asked us if we'd like a drink or anything else while we waited. We would have called in our order ahead of time except that we don't know how to pronounce the names of the dishes. When you're at the restaurant in person, you can just point at the menu.
If you like palak paneer at Indian restaurants, or if you like collard greens at southern restaurants, you might like gormeh sabzi. The dried lime gives the dish its distinctively Persian flavor.
Lamb shank isn't particularly expensive if you buy it at the grocery store, yet most restaurants charge close to $30 for it. Atlas only charges $13, and its tender preparation is just as good, if not better, than the pricier versions. The warm, juicy dried cherries provide a sweet counterpoint to the savory meat and basmati rice.
The restaurant's atmosphere is casual. Unlike many of the best restaurants in Simi, it's not just a hole in the wall that you're better off getting takeout from; it's nice enough to dine in. The tables are dressed in white linen with a small vase of fresh flowers, though the layout and the noise from the open kitchen prevent it from being nice enough for date night.
I was expecting this roasted eggplant dish to be like baba ghanoush, but the flavor is completely different. Gone are the pungent flavors of lemon and garlic. The eggplant flavor and texture is more prominent, and sauteed onions and a hint of mint in the yogurt sauce give this appetizer dip a unique flavor.
Koobideh is spiced ground beef formed into a kabob shape. If you've ever enjoyed a gyro at a Greek restaurant, you'll like koobideh. This dish, along with the other kabob dishes, is a good introduction to Persian food if you're a less adventurous eater. You can't go wrong with the filet mignon skewer. Other dishes on the menu that you're probably familiar with include the falafel and hummus appetizers, the Greek salad, and the Olivieh salad, which isn't too different from American potato salad.
Roasting the tomatoes imparts a delicious flavor even though they're your typical restaurant-grade, underripe tomatoes. The long-grain white rice that comes with most dishes at Atleas is the best rice I've ever eaten. It's perfectly cooked, fluffy, not sticky at all, flecked with bright yellow saffron-infused grains, and tastes like butter, yet it lacks even the slightest hint of greasiness.
The owner gave us two full containers of fresh, crunchy salad with lettuce, Persian cucumbers, tomatoes, red bell peppers, red onion, and purple cabbage. The dressing is creamy and a bit sweet but not heavy. It tastes unlike any other salad dressing I've had; unfortunately, I can't tell what's in it.
I loved when the owner held up a 14" round piece of flatbread and asked us, "Do you think this will be enough for everybody?" We thought it was more than generous! He sliced the bread, put it in a bag, and it was still warm by the time we got home.
All told, we had three bags of food that were going to be difficult to carry to our car, so the owner actually helped us carry it out and load it up. We really appreciated and were impressed by the extra care and service that went into every part of our visit, even though we were only getting takeout. It was the same high level of service we received on our previous visit when we dined in.
Atlas has some of the best food in Simi Valley accompanied by some of the best service. The portions are generous, too. The prices are reasonable, and if you're on a budget, consider the $6.99 lunch specials served until 3:00.
Atlas Mediterranean Kitchen
1368 Madera Road, Suite 6
Simi Valley CA, 93065
Hours: 11am to 9pm daily
Atlas Mediterranean Kitchen website
Atlas Mediterranean Kitchen menu
As a native Texan, my standards for barbecue are high. Smokin Steve's is not a Texas barbecue joint--it calls itself a Southern-style barbecue, California and Cajun cuisine restaurant. I had to try to judge the food on its own merits instead of comparing it to what I'm used to.
The two meats I tried were outstanding for their rich, smoky flavor and moist tenderness. Another standout at Smokin Steve's is the barbecue sauce. They have five different flavors: sweet and bold, raspberry, chipotle, mustard, and vinegar. The meat stands firmly on its own without sauce, however.
I do have two complaints that, for me, overshadow the high quality of the meat. The prices seem very high for the amount of meat you get, but maybe I have misconceptions about the amount of work that goes into good smoked barbecue. Also, the side dishes are mediocre. At a true Southern restaurant, the side dishes are an essential part of the meal, but at Smokin' Steves, they seem like cheap fillers that are trying to justify the high prices.
The mac and cheese was bland--at a minimum, it needed salt, but what it really needed was more flavorful cheese. The dinner roll was also lackluster--it seemed like something I could get out of a plastic package from the grocery store. The beans, typically my favorite barbecue side dish, were the best of the sides I tried, but still nothing special.
If I go back to Smokin' Steves, I'll stick to the meat. In fact, I might buy it in bulk--if you order a larger quantity of meat, like 5 lbs. or more, the price per pound drops significantly for takeout orders.
Smokin Steve's BBQ Joint
1407 East Los Angeles Avenue
Simi Valley, CA 93065
Smokin Steve's website
Smokin Steve's menu
Tuesday through Thursday; Sunday, 11:00 am - 8:00 pm
Friday and Saturday, 11:00 am - 9:00 pm
Howdy's Taqueria in the Malibu Country Mart shopping center is a great choice if you're looking for a casual, inexpensive, unpretentious place to eat in Malibu. The restaurant offers a mostly predictable selection of Mexican staples like tacos, burritos, and quesadillas, with a few unexpected choices like a Hawaiian salad, mole tacos, wild salmon soup, and--get this--sushi.
I can't speak for the sushi--I really can't stomach the idea of ordering sushi at a Mexican joint, even if I can feel the ocean breeze while I eat, and even though I have no problem eating Mexican ceviche, which is raw fish soaked in citrus juice (also on the menu).
I did try the tacos and a quesadilla. All of the food, including the tortilla chips, was remarkably light and ungreasy for a Mexican restaurant. The meat was a little bland, probably from the lack of grease, but it was fine. The cilantro and onions added some kick, as did the selection of salsas. The salsa bar offers a milder, green tomatillo salsa, a basic red salsa, and a spicy orange salsa. They were all good, but not memorable; the same was true of the tacos and quesadilla.
The restaurant was plenty busy, but we were able to get a table indoors. They also have patio seating, which can be noisy because of the adjacent parking lot.
Howdy's has mixed reviews on Yelp!, but I think its overall rating of just three stars is undeservedly low. True, it's not the most authentic Mexican food, but you're in Malibu, not the Valley. Yes, it's a little pricey for Mexican, but it's inexpensive considering the ingredients are organic and free range and, again, you're in Malibu.
I wouldn't go out of my way to eat here, but for a fresh, affordable, and relatively healthy lunch when you're already in the area, it's a solid choice.
3835 Cross Creek Rd # A
Malibu, CA 90265
Howdy's Taqueria website
Howdy's Taqueria menu