750 Sixth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
Authentic Afghan cuisine is hard to find. For several years, Chopahn restaurant was an overlooked storefront in a huge mall up near UTC. "When we were in the Renaissance Towne Center, people often drove right by us and missed us," says chef-owner Haider Hussainy. After a two-year hiatus to find a more attractive location, Chopahn reopened in the Gaslamp -- but as of this writing, it doesn't yet have an overhead sign. At our first visit, we nearly missed it: The setting sun was in our eyes, and a herd of elephantine SUVs was parked in front, obscuring our view. Only when we crossed the street did we espy the patio tables and eye-catching planters filled with flowers.
It was worth the hunt, because good Afghan cooking is a delight -- and Chopahn's is very good, indeed. Hussainy's rugged, mountainous country borders on India, Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and several lesser-known "-stans." It shares some of the best elements of all these cuisines. If you love kebabs, you'll be thrilled with Chopahn's, which features fine, hand-cut meat cooked to order and enriched by a gentle herbal marinade. If you enjoy Indian spices and Persian stews, you'll find close equivalents. If you're mad for garlicky Uzbek yogurt sauce -- well, you can have that too.
As you enter, you walk across two handsome Afghan rugs in the vibrant reds and compelling designs of Oriental tribal carpets. The dining room is painted a light mustard, with arches cut into the walls; the banister of a stairway to an upstairs banquet room is sawed in zigzags. Rhythmic Afghan music plays on the sound system -- sometimes exotic, sometimes weirdly similar to Appalachian bluegrass jams. (It's mountain music either way.)
Every appetizer on the menu is worth trying. My favorite (perhaps because it was new to me) was bulanee, a thin turnover of airy, fragile dough, filled with an intense purée of leeks, spring onions, herbs, and a touch of hot pepper. (There's also a ground beef and potato version called bulanee katchalu. ) Aushak is probably Afghanistan's best-known dish, consisting of large, thin-skinned, ravioli-like dumplings with a similar leek filling, topped with garlic-spiked yogurt and a spicy ground-beef sauce. (This is a dish that lovers of Uzbek cuisine will immediately recognize as a close variation of chuckvara, the national dish.) Mantu, from the north of the country (near the Uzbek border), are aushak in reverse -- the meat's in the filling, and the topping is yogurt sauce and vegetables. Both aushak and mantu are also available as entrées.
From the Indian-influenced side of the cuisine, sambosas are essentially double-size samosas, with a ground-beef and puréed chickpea filling spiked with fresh-ground coriander seed. Pakawra resemble swollen Indian pakoras -- in rounds the size of English muffins, a puffy fried batter encloses tender eggplant or potatoes and is served piping hot before it has a chance to deflate. The eggplant version was my partner's favorite appetizer. The toppings are yogurt sauce and a mildly seasoned meat sauce.
Along with your appetizers you'll receive a basket of house-baked naan, a flatbread resembling Italian focaccia, baked in a regular oven. (In the homeland, it's typically made in a tandoor oven.) Adding to the flavors are a ramekin of extra yogurt sauce and another containing coriander "chutney." Make no mistake, this is not a sweet chutney but the house hot sauce, a purée of cilantro, garlic, and Serrano chiles. I told my partner, "Wow, this tastes like one of those homemade peppa sauces from Trinidad." Thinking that I meant the faded bottled sauces we brought back five years ago, he swiped his bread through it and took a big bite. With my mouth full of bulanee, I couldn't yell, "Watch out!" Eyes tearing and ears fuming, he promptly downed half a glass of beer (which, oddly enough, was Pacifico, not Taj Mahal or Kingfisher -- his favorite Indian imports aren't offered here). The soothing yogurt proved the key to his recovery.
Among the three salads, the modestly named "house salad" is the one that patrons of the UTC Chopahn most savored. It includes romaine, shredded carrots and red cabbage, cucumber, and tomatoes (seriously unripe that night) in a light yogurt-mustard dressing. The flavor is big and bright but weightless.
There are endless variations on kebabs. In Afghani languages, "kebabs" means meat dry-cooked, grilled, or roasted, whole or in chunks. It needn't be skewered. Many selections are grilled whole -- no hole through the center. Chopahn serves seven types of kebabs, four of which highlight different cuts of lamb. (The rest are beef, chicken, and veal.) Given Afghanistan's geography, I chose ovine over bovine -- the lamb selections are presumably the most authentic. A steep and chilly country where artisans weave prized Oriental rugs must have a lot of thick-wooled sheep, but no corn-fed Omaha cows.
Chopahn, the dish for which the restaurant is named, here refers to grilled lamb loin chops. (At the famed Helmand restaurants in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. -- owned by the family of the president of Afghanistan -- the word "chopahn" applies to rack of lamb. But Afghanistan has many languages.) The chops have been marinated in saffron, garlic, onion, and white-wine vinegar, and they're savory, tender mouthfuls. They come with challaw, which is buttery steamed basmati rice. Alongside is an array of char-marked grilled tomato halves, zucchini, green pepper, and eggplant. The grill here employs lava rocks, lending the meats a wood-smoky, campfire flavor similar to that of the native charcoal-grilling.
The most lavish entrée is shinwari kabob, a roast rack of tender lamb ribs with a pistachio crust. We ordered it rare, and the rigorously trimmed meat was juicy and tender. Its roasted garlic and reduced lamb-stock gravy was thick, dark, and salty, and a tad burned that night. The meat comes with pallaw, basmati rice that's browned and seasoned by sautéing in a touch of oil (like Chinese fried rice), plus the same grilled vegetables as those served with the chopahn.