Considering the turmoil and strife Afghanistan has undergone over the past thousand years or so, it's amazing how balanced and nurturing its native cuisine can be. This mountainous, landlocked, often beleaguered country, bordered by China, Iran, Pakistan, and three former republics of the Soviet Union, has absorbed enough of its neighbors' rambunctious influences across the centuries to create a style of cookery that combines just the right amount of spice and zest with a salubrious array of crops and produce.
There's something about platters and bowls of eggplant, cilantro, pumpkin, and basmati fragrant with cardamom and scallions that balms the soul, satisfies the belly, and outlasts the rampaging auslander. Genghis Khan, Queen Victoria, the Russians, tribal warfare, the Taliban, and a three-decade civil war have left their mark, but the food endures.
In fact it's endured halfway around the globe to Little Kabul in Fremont, one of the largest Afghan-American communities in the nation, where nearly a dozen restaurants and markets cater to the tastebuds of homesick locals. This is where émigré Aziz Omar opened the first De Afghanan Kabob House in 1994, a venture that was so successful he opened two satellite locations in Berkeley and in S.F.'s Polk Gulch less than a year ago. The Polk Street venue has been spruced up a bit since the late, lamented Mediterranean Spirit closed up shop last September, with apricot-colored walls, carved-wood screens, color photographs of the old country, and the occasional objet d'art somewhat enlivening what is inescapably a bare-bones neighborhood storefront with exposed piping, lots of Formica, counter service, and a refrigerator in the corner stocked with soda pop. What gives the place its special ambience are the friendly, welcoming service and the intricate, satisfying house cuisine.
A good place to start during the nippy months ahead is with a big bowl of aush ($4), the spicy Afghan soup. De Afghanan's rendition features a light broth ribboned with peas, ground lamb, bits of carrot, and short strands of al dente spaghetti, sprinkled with dried mint and peppers and crowned with a dollop of housemade yogurt that barely tempers this robust, revivifying brew. Another splendid starter is shornakhed ($2), a tapas-sized salad of potatoes and garbanzo beans. Dressed in a puckery vinaigrette, it's not unlike a bracing German-style potato salad, with the tender beans adding a mildly pungent quality to the whole.
A signature specialty in the Afghan repertoire is bolani, a grilled turnover similar to a blintz. A delicate pancake-like casing is filled with a variety of ingredients, fried, and served with creamy yogurt and chatni gashneez, a tart chutney of cilantro, vinegar, and pulverized nuts. De Afghanan prepares two varieties. The bolani alo parata ($8) is stuffed with mashed potatoes jazzed with minced leeks, black pepper, and herbs and is one of the more thoroughly satisfying appetizers available around town. The bolani kadoo ($8) isn't as successful, with a bland, starchy pumpkin filling that weighs it down. Each platter features more than half a dozen sizable turnovers, enough to satisfy a table of five. They're best eaten with the hands, pizza-style.
With a name like Kabob House, the skewered, grilled meats better be good — and they are. Unlike many other dried-out kabobs, brochettes, yakitori, and spiedini, De Afghanan's are tender and juicy on the inside, charred and delectable outside. The combination kabob ($10) is a good, inclusive option, delivering eight hefty chunks of beef and chicken marinated in a bazaar's worth of spices and cooked until moist and smoky. (All-beef and all-chicken kabobs are available as well.) Even better is the chupon kabob ($15), four hefty lamb chops medium-rare pink inside and scorched-crust black on the outside that will have you gnawing at the bones. The chaplee kabob ($9), a De Afghanan specialty, is like a slender, bunless burger in which ground sirloin is combined with minced scallions, cumin, and cilantro, then flattened into thin patties and fried until well done. The result should be tough and chewy, but a spoonful of flour gives the meat a tender, almost creamy consistency. All kabobs come with a refreshing condiment-like salad of tomato, red onion, and cilantro; flat, chewy Afghan bread; and exceptionally fluffy basmati rice drenched in butter.
Basmati also stars in Afghanistan's national dish, quabili pallow ($11), a festive-occasion casserole of lamb shank, raisins, carrots, and brown rice simmered in broth. As the ingredients are baked slowly together, the flavors and spices infuse the rice while the lamb becomes fall-off-the-shank tender: a memorable dish. The chicken korma casserole ($10), on the other hand, is dry and ponderous, although the oniony tomato sauce that accompanies it is lush and tasty. A better bet is mantu ($10), delicate steamed dumplings filled with a robust ground beef and puréed onion mixture and served with a drizzle of yogurt and a lusty split-pea chutney. Three vegetarian dishes round out the entrées: sabsi ($5.50, $8 with rice), a creamy yet incendiary platter of braised spinach, mushrooms, fresh herbs, and peppers; kadoo ($5.50, $8 with rice), a very sweet, very spicy sautéed pumpkin dish that takes some getting used to; and, best of all, badenjan ($5.50, $8 with rice), a luscious quasi-ratatouille of braised eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, and garlic that highlights every farm-fresh flavor in true California-cuisine fashion.
The dessert menu is on the minimal side: baklava ($1.50) and firni ($2.50), a sweet milk pudding. The baklava isn't bad — crunchy on the outside, buttery on the inside — but there isn't enough of it to fully satisfy that post-meal sweet tooth. And the firni is not only too sugary for the pudding's delicate milky-white character, there's a strong flavor of cardamom overwhelming the dish's advertised essence of rosewater.
De Afghanan doesn't offer wine or beer, but soft drinks and bottled water are available along with dogh ($2), a tall, refreshing glass of tart, barely diluted housemade yogurt fortified with chunks of fresh cucumber and sprinkled with dried mint. There's also a large carafe at the front counter where you can help yourself to complimentary hot tea, fragrant with cardamom — a pleasant and unexpected brew.
After your meal, make sure to wander down Polk to the Asian Art Museum and check out "Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Exhibition" (running through Jan. 25), a dazzling display of fabled ancient artworks saved against incredible odds from those aforementioned invading hordes. They make a vivid complement to De Afghanan's riches of a different, tastier sort.