A little bit better quality lunch than I'm accustomed to. Chicken Qalbi with coriander chutney. Ariana Kabob House.
9910 Mira Mesa Boulevard, Suite A, San Diego
I doubt I'm alone in associating the word kabob (or kebab) with coastal Mediterranean countries — the skewered meat typically served alongside pitas and tahini, or tzatziki. However, Mira Mesa's Ariana Kabob House offers a fairly different experience, serving the dishes of a landlocked nation most of us should probably know a lot more about: Afghanistan.
These are not the kebabs you're thinking of.
I'd admittedly never eaten Afghani cuisine before wandering into Ariana, and whatever my expectations, they were exceeded. Checking the menu posted outside, I knew the prices would be reasonable, and being that the place exists in a small shopping center in an area rife with shopping centers, I figured it would be casual, with plastic utensils and furniture. Not a bit.
Though not a rigidly formal atmosphere, I did almost feel underdressed for lunch. The table settings included proper silverware and folded linen napkins. The dining room felt spacious and airy yet meticulously arranged, decorated with musical instruments, clothing and kites, and in particular a very large painting depicting a group of traditionally dressed Afghan men on horseback.
Knowing so little about the food, I asked the curt but friendly proprietor for a recommendation. Naturally, the kabob came up, but before I could commit he suggested that the chicken qalbi was very good, and popular. Every entrée is $9 for lunch, so why not?
A huge painting watching over you.
I went with that and watched as groups of co-workers from nearby business parks came in and out, and a few others in work attire dropped in for phone orders. Sipping an iced cardamom black tea, I took a little more time to pore over the menu and noticed that, among unfamiliar names like korme sabsi (sautéed beef and puréed spinach) were more familiar ones like curry, dal, kofta, and sambosa. Forehead meet palm. Afgjhanistan is located between the Middle East and South Asia, so it makes perfect sense that there should be a commingling of culinary traditions going on here.
The qalbi arrived, consisting of chicken thighs served over seasoned brown rice and topped by carrots and raisins. It reminded me of Persian dishes I've tried, with fragrant herbs and interplay between savory and sweet. On the side was a dense, flavorful bread reminiscent of focaccia and a small bowl of spicy coriander chutney, which I was encouraged to use over everything.
I'll be frank: carrots and raisins are not the fruit and vegetable combination I've waiting for all my life. However, the chicken was perfectly cooked, moist and exquisitely tender, and that spicy chutney cut through the sweetness to add to a complex layering of flavors.
In time, I hope I can refer to some of the dishes served here without comparing them to those of other cultures better represented in our restaurant landscape. In the meantime, we can be glad to have such a worthy representation relatively close at hand. I personally will be returning for dinner, when they add lamb dishes to an already comprehensive menu.