"The best food on planet earth"
The menu at Ariana Kabob House asks, "Is Afghan food really the best food on planet earth?" The response is, "Absolutely. It has been confirmed by an independent panel of random unbiased Afghan judges." Next question: "If Afghan food is so tasty, why hasn't anyone told me about it yet?" The answer admonishes us, "Because you aren't very good at keeping secrets." Ah, so that's it.
All we hear about Afghanistan is war, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda, but it's a country with an ancient culture, and, of course, its own food. Sarah and Mohammad Katawazi have set up shop in Swillburg to introduce us to it. We should be grateful for the perspective.
Sarah Katawazi came to Rochester 24 years ago to escape the Russian invasion of her country. She worked as a painter before breaking her back, and though working now is painful, a recent visit home inspired her. Things are desperate for many in Afghanistan, and Katawazi wanted to contribute something to the poor there. Her husband agreed to help her to run the restaurant so they could send some of the profit back home.
Afghan food is completely new to me, though not at all strange. It's stews, kabobs, rice, and bread, much of which will be familiar if you've eaten Eastern Mediterranean or Northern Indian food. A good place to start is the buffet, available at all times ($7.95 for weekday lunch, $10.95 for dinner and all day on weekends). It includes an appetizer, several meat and vegetarian dishes, a fabulous rice pilaf (more on this), and an assortment of desserts.
Boranikachola and boranibadim jam are likely to be on the buffet ($4.95 as appetizers). The former is potato wedges stewed with onion and tomato, much better than that simple description implies. The latter is even better, eggplant in a similar setting, garnished with homemade yogurt. Both are completely vegetarian, and there are enough other veggie items to please those who shun meats.
But it is the Kabob House, and our buffet also included a stewed beef dish and large pieces of chicken kabob. Both had flavor to the heart of the meat, though neither were quite as good as the meats off the menu.
The menu offers Qablipalow, aromatic hunks of lamb shank served with rice pilaf ($12.95). The shank came apart with a fork, and was rich without a hint of gaminess. The house special lamb kabobs were made from a different cut ($12.95), juicier and took more of the flavor of the seasonings (rosemary, perhaps?). Also excellent.
Most dishes come with basmati rice prepared with small threads of sautéed carrots, raisins, and what Sarah Katawazi called zireh (cumin, I believe). Delicious pilaf is more rare than it ought to be; you seldom have it at restaurants. Usually, the rice is dried out, and the flavors don't blend. This stuff is outstanding. My friend, Marwan, raved about it, saying how happy he was to have found a place for a great plate of meat and rice.
If you like the meats, you can buy the cuts from Halal Meats, which is in the same building. The Halal Market is another great place for lamb (311 East Ridge Road), but this provides a south side option.
Like the Turks and the Indians, the Afghan people have a salted, yogurt-based drink (doogh, $2.25). If you cringe at the idea of salted milk products, get over it. Doogh is great stuff, refreshing and healthful. It's about the consistency of milk, is slightly fermented, and has diced mint and cucumber, a perfect accompaniment for this food.
The Katawazis serve you themselves, and they're friendly and attentive without fawning. The space is too large for now, but hey, you'll definitely get a table. When I first went, I looked at the buffet and thought, "OK, like the Indian buffets with less breadth." But as each and every item turned out to be excellent (and they all did), my attitude shifted. Ariana Kabob House is unique in town, deserving your business not only because of Sarah Katawazi's noble goals, but also for its yummy food.
Ariana Kabob House, 1009 South Clinton Avenue, (585) 244-3202. Hours: Tuesday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5:30-9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5:30-10 p.m.; Sunday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5:30-9 p.m.
Why'd the diner cross the road? To get to a better location, of course. The Flour City Diner is moving to 35 Chestnut, re-opening on Thursday, January 4. It'll serve breakfast and lunch Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday, and three meals a day Thursday through Saturday. Don't skimp on the pie. Call (585) 546-6607 for info.