Regular lamb kebabs (kebab-e-gousfand), skewered chunks, are made from the well-trimmed leg, same as most Greek (and Armenian, Persian, Turkish, etc.) shish kebabs, and they benefit from the same marinade as the chopahn. Sautéed lamb shows up in karai, where it mingles with onion, tomatoes, and green peppers, served over basmati rice. (There's also a beef version, korma challow. ) If you prefer long-stewed lamb, the shanks go into a dish called quabili pallaw, rice with carrots and raisins. In addition, there are several stews, with a choice of eggplant, spinach, or cauliflower as the costarring vegetable.
But it's not an all-mammal menu of main courses. Although Afghanistan has no seacoast, it has plenty of lakes and rivers laden with trout and other freshwater fish. A form of freshwater salmon is called "red fish" in translation. It's represented on the menu as mahie (which means simply "fish" and is pronounced like mahi-mahi, minus one mahi). This is farm-raised Atlantic salmon, grilled to order -- precisely to our order of "moist." It's served on a bed of sabsi, baby-spinach stew, with chopped tomatoes, garlic, and an olive oil-based dill sauce, plus the grilled veggie array of the kabobs. Another meat alternative is samarooq challaw, skinless chicken breast sautéed with onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, and green bell peppers over well-buttered basmati. It's among the owner's favorites and one of the waiter's pick hits, but to me, it's still just chicken breast.
Vegetable side dishes shouldn't be missed, even if there are already veggies on the plate. (Served with challow, these dishes make up the vegetarian entrées.) The must-try choice is kadu, pumpkin cooked meltingly tender in a sweet syrup and topped with yogurt and meat sauce. (Right now, with pumpkin seasonally unavailable, it's made with nutty butternut squash.) I was delighted as well with gulpi, cauliflower cooked with ginger, tomatoes, and onions. It's similar to Indian cuisine, but the flavors are distinct, rather than a currylike blend. You can appreciate the individual ingredients.
The wine list is appropriate and generally affordable, dominated by California bottlings but with some French and Italian choices. Mr. Hussainy likes Chardonnay with the appetizers and Pinot Noir with lamb dishes. I do wish there were more choices by the glass -- but that's a constant wherever I dine.
There are two desserts. The house-made baklava is less gooey than most, with top and bottom layers of filo sandwiching at least three inches of ground walnuts, all lightly dressed in sugar syrup. The other choice is firni, a creamy rice pudding that I like a lot but was too full to try.
Even if you don't want to venture into the "deep ethnic" side of the menu, go for the kebabs. No insult to other nations' cuisines, but in these dishes, Afghanistan is a world leader and Chopahn is a world-beater.
ABOUT THE CHEF-OWNER
Haider Hussainy was born in Kabul, then the cosmopolitan capital city of Afghanistan. He came to San Diego in 1974 to study for a degree in business administration at San Diego State and was here when his homeland was overrun by the Soviet Union. As much as he missed it, he couldn't go home again. In fact, it was a good time not to be home, and he remained in California through the Soviet era and the subsequent Taliban regime.
He was already engaged in cooking. "When I was little, I watched my mom. I loved to cook, and I learned it that way. I've cooked for all my life, since I was about 12 or 15. Now I remember how my mom cooked things, and I put them on the menu. That's why I got into the restaurant business."
As a student, Hussainy supported himself by working nights as a waiter at the Hyatt -- a gig that ended up lasting nearly 25 years, with increasing responsibilities. "When I finished my schooling," he says, "I told my wife, 'I've finished my degree but I'm not going to work in business, I'm going to open my own restaurant.'" Both he and his wife, a corporate manager, saved up their money to fulfill the dream. That was the first incarnation of Chopahn, opened in 1998 in the Renaissance Towne Center mall at UTC. "After about four years I sold that restaurant and spent two years tending to my family and looking for a better area to reopen in," he says. "I wanted to find some nice location in the Gaslamp area. I found this place, and it took me one year to rebuild it, with all the permits and engineering."
His cooking is remarkably wholesome, with everything made from scratch. "It's healthy food," he says. "I want to serve everything fresh." He makes the yogurt sauces with a blend of whole-milk and low-fat yogurts to get the right consistency. "I don't want to make it too heavy, I want a balance. Once in a while I make yogurt from scratch, but it takes too much of my time." Although he uses standard restaurant suppliers rather than "elite" food purveyors, he buys only never-frozen meat and poultry (in fact, the restaurant has no freezer). He cuts the meat himself, trimming off all visible fat. For the vegetables, "I shop all around, looking for the freshest vegetables. When the wholesaler sends me vegetables, I look them over, and if they're not fresh I send them back. If I see something nice at the farmer's market, I buy that."
I asked him what Afghan cuisine has in common with neighboring India and what differs between them. "Afghan cooking shares the same spices with Indian and Pakistani cooking, as well as some of the spices that Persian people use. The difference is that Indian food uses a lot of spices all at once and makes them overpowering. Our cuisine, you can taste everything separately. You know exactly what you're tasting -- the cinnamon, the cumin, the coriander. We like a lot of spices, but we don't like them all blended together. We want to enjoy every flavor in what we're eating."