Afghanistan, on a map: land-locked, sandwiched between questionable neighbors, ringed by mountains, crisscrossed by dangerous (and often impassable) roads. No wonder Afghan cuisine is limited to what can be grown domestically — importing fresh food is a life or death enterprise. So, in the restaurants of Kabul you'll get ample lamb, chicken, rice, naan, and sturdy vegetables like cauliflower and potatoes. You will not easily find beef, pork (this is a Muslim country, after all), fish or salad.
The ingredients are scant but Afghan food is hearty and delicious: heaping piles of dumplings, platters of rice, stewed meat and vegetables. This cuisine is not for dainty eaters nor those with sensitive stomachs; it's designed for farmers and fighters. While Los Angeles has hundreds of Middle Eastern restaurants, there are only two in the area that specifically focus on Afghan food. Here we put them head to head.
In the first corner, we have Afghan Express, a strip-mall dweller in an area of Gardena that could vaguely be described as “near the airport” (it's 8 miles away). From the street — and, let's face it, inside — it looks like any other crappy hole in the wall: windows and walls pasted with photos of food, a buffet steam table near the cash register, harsh overhead lighting. Do not be afraid. The food is stellar.
Skip the lone appetizer and head straight to the main courses. Share an order of Kabuli Palao with lamb – a sizable stewed lamb shank topped with perfectly cooked rice, sugar-marinated carrots and raisins. Grab a plate of Mantu, meat dumplings influenced by Afghanistan's Chinese neighbors; here, they nail the meat seasoning and the insanely addictive yogurt/lentil topping. Round out your meal with an order of Ghoopi (cauliflower), stewed with garlic, tomatoes and onions. Normally I love Afghan eggplant, but here it veered to the greasy side of the street. Sop everything up with naan, and prepare to leave with leftovers. It's good you're full — there is no dessert.
The competition is Pasadena's Azeen's Afghani Restaurant. It's a little like comparing a supermodel to a homeless woman – Azeen's has wine and beer, white tablecloths and beautiful murals; Afghan Express has a Coke machine and a scary bathroom. The menus are nearly identical, but Azeen's prices are about five bucks higher per dish.
Here you can definitely start with the bulanee (fried dough filled with potatoes and leeks) and the sambosa (fried dough filled with beef and chickpeas) – served with yogurt dipping sauce and a “chili chutney” that is milder than it sounds but pure herbal bliss (confession: I think I ate it by the spoonful when my friends weren't looking. Maybe. I might have). Their Kabuli Palao (here spelled Quabili Pallaw) is cinnamon-y and good — but the dumplings and vegetables fell short. One friend described the cauliflower as Chef Boyardee, and the eggplant was doing a killer impression of tomato sauce. The Mantu filling was decent, but the topping was light on the yogurt and topped with a strange assortment of stewed vegetables. Unless you have a real thing for rosewater, skip dessert.
The verdict? As with all truly excellent holes-in-the-wall, Afghan Express has the better, more authentic food. And it will cost you, like, nothing. Your more adventurous friends will be impressed you found this place. But if you're taking a date, your parents or a business partner? Or find yourself nowhere near Gardena? Get your palao fix at Azeen's.
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