The first thing I’m handed on my first visit to Afghan Kabob is a basket of bread, and if for some reason the meal never progressed any further (a possibility; the service can be that slow), I’d still be compelled to rave. It’s been a personal mission of mine to find bread that represents, as Salman Rushdie has written, “a break in the natural order,” bread that seems to come from so far “beyond the frontiers of the everyday” that it’s practically “fictional.”
Granted, the Afghan Kabob is no Monastery of the Angels, the source of Rushdie’s fantasy loaf, but it does serve mean nan. Not “just naan,” as my waitress offhandedly describes it. When flatbread is resigned to being ordinary or worse, it’s generally owing to a flimsiness that causes it to resemble one of those flexy Frisbees you can ball up and put in your pocket. But this stuff is shapely, crisp wherever you bite. AK’s naan isn’t circular and portioned into personally sized rounds, but large and oval, served cut into squares, triangles, and almost perfect parallelograms. It’s not exactly the stuff of Rushdie’s essay (he was describing a leavened loaf), but the puff of air that separates the crusts is mystifyingly flavorful, and as I sit dipping my first basket in a garlic-mint yogurt sauce I can’t help but congratulate myself on finding the city’s best pizza. All that’s missing is the topping.
The unadvertised secret of the best kabob joints is that the house specialty is actually bread. Yet Afghan Kabob’s name doesn’t do the restaurant justiceand I do mean restaurant. The word “kabob” often suggests “shack” and/or “takeout only,” but AK is neither. Located in a two-story crevice of space near the Key Bridge, the restaurant, which has existed for 26 years under various ownership, wears its years well. The patina of age has robbed the various rugs of some of their vibrancy, but their deterioration adds to the overall sense of timelessness. Certainly AK gets visits from customers who want to revisit that long-ago date spent sitting on the pillows upstairs. So ignore the subtle aura of decay and let the old-timers take delight in discovering that nothing’s changedyou could be one of them some day.
Afghan Kabob devotes a large part of its menu to grilled meats; no surprise there. The state in which the meat arrives is what’s worth noting; only once am I given a kabob that’s less than juicyshrimp is like that. Lamb is far and away the meat of choice here, and its preparation varies from normal (marinated, grilled, and served over basmati rice) to inverted normal (marinated, grilled, and served under basmati rice) to you-can’t-get-this-from-the-guy-on-the-street (sautéed with eggplant and brown sauce and served with yogurt). As good as all those dishes are, none can hold a candle to the chopan kabob, a conversation-stopper of lamb ribs dusted with a powder made from dried berries and grapes. If you’ve come for lamb, don’t even bother looking at the other entrees.
But a restaurant would never last this long on the slow end of M Street if the grill were its only game. When vegetables are included at all with the grilled dishes, it’s usually just for flavor, so you won’t want to ignore the vegetarian items. Think of them as side dishes. Aside from the luscious, mint-sprinkled sautéed pumpkin, most of the veggies don’t stand up as entrees; rice needs more than carrots, raisins, and almonds to qualify as a meal, and we need to add an inordinate amount of cilantro-pepper chutney to spark the spinach to life.
Much like Burmese food, which shuffles the flavors of so many Asian cuisines that eating it is the culinary equivalent of listening to Beck, Afghan cuisine flouts its provenance (those kabobs could come from any number of neighboring Middle Eastern countries) without sacrificing its identity. AK’s appetizers include stuffed grape leaves and hummus as well as bulanee kado (pumpkin turnovers) and baunjan borani (eggplant topped with yogurt and bread); for dessert, you can get baklava or maghoot, a cornstarch gelatin sweetened with rosewater and almonds.
Then there are the dumplings. The dearth of Eastern European restaurants in D.C. means that most locals have to satisfy their jones for pelmeni and pierogi (Russian and Polish dumplings, respectively) in the frozen food section or discover aushak and muntoo. Both are Afghan noodle dishes, but only aushak, a scallion-filled dumpling covered in meat sauce and yogurt, is on AK’s menu all the time. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday are the only days when muntoo is offered, and I advise that you plan accordingly. The noodle purses are plumped with meat, doused with that same yogurt and sauce, and escorted by a violent mix of red peppers and oil. I wasn’t sure that AK’s bread quite measured up to Rushdie’s until I dipped a piece into the mess the muntoo left behind.
Afghan Kabob, 3320 M St. NW, (202) 337-0300.
Neither its name (yes, even people behind the counter admit that it’s lame) nor its peculiar location (the rear entrance is the front entrance) is enough to deter people from seeking out the Food Factory. The guy who recommended it doesn’t even really like the food that much, “but they make the most wonderful naan,” he gushes. He’s right: FF’s naan is imperfect in a way that enhances its character; tear it and twist it, and you’re going to find parts that are thick and doughy and others that are thin, crisp, and nearly blackened. And it also comes fresh, providing a nice counterpoint to the cheap but ordinary steam-table entrees.
Food Factory, 4221 N. Fairfax Dr., Arlington, (703) 527-2279.Brett Anderson
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