My Kabul restaurant review: Afghan restaurant deserves more diners – The Washington Post – The Washington Post

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A tried-and-true tip for ordering from an unfamiliar menu is to look for dishes that don’t seem to fit. It’s a trick I learned early in my career from my predecessor.

“If you find a Latin American restaurant that also serves Korean bulgogi or a Chinese restaurant that has empanadas on its menu, you are probably in for a treat,” Phyllis C. Richman advised readers in 1988. “Such an anomaly usually means someone in the kitchen has a specialty he is passionate about, or that when a new owner took over the old one taught the new one how to make the dish that popular demand would require to be kept on the menu.”

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Her sage advice resonated with me when I first read the script at My Kabul in Laurel. I expected to see the beef-filled dumplings called mantu and an array of kebabs served with flatbread — Afghan staples — at the fledgling restaurant. The outliers in the pack include butter chicken, a head-scratcher until you talk to owner Khalis Noori, 35, who did some research ahead of opening the storefront in May and noticed an abundance of Indians living in the area.

End of carousel

As for the sweet-spicy chicken wings, they’re a nod of appreciation to a South Korean benefactor who helped Noori after he fled Afghanistan in the summer of 2021, when the Taliban captured the capital of Kabul. Noori eventually landed in Virginia after stops in Qatar and Germany. Having studied international relations and international development in Britain, Noori landed a job first as a case manager and then as a site director with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, during which he helped 1,400 Afghan evacuees secure jobs and homes.

As Eid, a time of celebration marking the end of Ramadan, and Nowruz, the Persian new year, approached last year, Noori says he saw in his circle a “need for people to come together under one roof.” There was no budget to rent a big space, and several restaurants turned him down. In his favor were fellow immigrants, including relatives, who could put their skills to use and paint, build or cook. Northern Virginia was the hoped-for location for such an idea, but when a vacant space in Prince George’s County was offered, Noori couldn’t resist. “The price was low, there was nothing to pay upfront, and the first three months were free,” he says.

Except for some paintings of Afghanistan, the interior, brightened as if by surgical lights, does not suggest that the food of the country is served there. The dining room’s 60 or so seats are gathered around big, glass-topped tables set with lovely, handmade placements. A gleaming but empty buffet hugs a wall, waiting for the day when food is presented atop it. The bar in back is used mainly for takeout; alcohol has yet to be offered. Eyes are drawn to the front of the room, where a wall behind a small stage is festooned with pink, yellow and white paper flowers, a cheerful contrast to the hearty menu. It’s a tidy scene. The first time I dropped in, a server was running a vacuum cleaner.

Unfortunately, I’ve never seen My Kabul anywhere close to busy. Ten is a crowd here. This is regrettable, because much of what comes out of the kitchen, in which half a dozen cooks toil, including the owner’s brother Mohammad, deserves more of an audience.

Exhibit A is mantu, the owner’s go-to dish at My Kabul. The dumplings — supple purses filled with juicy ground beef and strewn with yellow lentils and cilantro — are luscious. Mantu represent more than mere fuel, says Noori, who recalls the work that went into the dumplings back home but also how making them united his family. “So much love, so much togetherness, so much happiness.” If my notes included emojis, a red heart would have summed up the sensation of eating the mantu, their centers warm with cumin, turmeric and other spices.

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Anything wrapped is a must, really. My maiden dinner got off to a fine start with a potato-swollen samosa served with a pale-green yogurt sauce, redolent of garlic and coriander, for dunking, and subsequent meals were launched with bolani, floppy fried flatbread stuffed with a veneer of potatoes, onions and minced jalapeños, their heat a nice foil to otherwise soothing flavors, including a murmur of coriander. For color and contrast, I ask for the restaurant’s signature salad: lettuce, carrot, cheese and pickled cucumber tossed with olives, lemon and coriander. It’s a chopped salad via Kabul that would be more satisfying with more dressing to moisten it.

There’s not much distinction between appetizers and entrees; everything you ask for tends to show up at the same time. No matter the size of the order, it’s wheeled out on a cart. The generous kebab platter lets you sample skewers of marinated ground beef, chicken and lamb arranged on a raft of freshly baked flatbread that sponges the juices of the meat and also serves as an accompaniment, instead of rice, if you ask. If I were to get one kebab, it would be kofta, ropy beef decked out with cucumbers and onions seasoned with sweet-tart sumac.

The butter chicken is a surprise in more ways than one. While a nod to India, its sauce is pumpkin orange rather than darker, explained by the fact that carrots, in addition to traditional tomatoes, are used to make the liquid cloak covering big bites of chicken. The texture of the vivid puree also offers more structure than the usual creamy sauce for the dish.

I imagine the owner’s South Korean benefactor would be pleased by what the menu calls “Little Seoul,” fried chicken wings in a dark gloss of soy sauce, honey and red chile sauce. Wings are ubiquitous. These are a flock apart.

Pan-fried okra in a light tomato sauce is a better vegetable than sabzi, or pureed spinach seasoned with garlic and coriander, but only because the kitchen has a heavy hand with salt in the latter (twice, unfortunately). And lamb shank under a dome of fragrant rice, scattered with carrot strips and raisins, tastes more boiled than roasted. My Kabul lacks the finesses of the region’s top Afghan draws, including the convivial, family-run Afghan Bistro in Springfield and its fancy siblings, but it’s a satisfying, warmhearted place to know about if you’re in the area.

News accounts about the restaurant, which offers up to half off for meals for refugees, play up the cardamom-infused Afghan ice cream, which I didn’t order the first time (I was too full) or the second visit (I forgot). I was excited to sample the labor-intensive sheer yakh on my last foray, but alas: “We only make it on weekends, when it’s busy,” a server told me.

My job isn’t to fill restaurants that could use a boost. But one of the great joys of reviewing restaurants is shining a light on lesser-known establishments that are doing a solid job. My Kabul deserves more diners in chairs, and not just because it offers some rewarding dishes at gentle prices: The restaurant is that rare thing anymore — quiet except for occasional soft background music — a situation that could change with a bigger audience.

The staff I’ve encountered have been shy but friendly, as if they’re playing restaurant rather than working in one. Take time to talk to them, though, and they light up. I plan to return on a future weekend just to chat up the owner’s teenage nephew, Yousof Noori, again, and finally dig into that sheer yakh.

“When all the family is pitching in to run the restaurant, you’ve probably chosen well,” my mentor also coached readers. And so I did. And so should you.

13919 Baltimore Ave., Laurel, Md. 240-247-1299. mykabul.us. Open for indoor dining, delivery and takeout 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Prices: appetizers $5 to $10, main courses $10 to $35. Sound check: 67 decibels/Conversation is easy. Accessibility: Slight rise at entrance; ADA-compliant restroom.

correction

A previous version of this story mistakenly referred to Nowruz as Afghan new year. It is Persian new year.

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