Have you ever had Afghani food?
Well, okay, maybe YOU have, but you're a Chowhound. But maybe you're a relatively new Chowhound, like me, and though you've made your way through dozens of exotic cuisines, Afghani just doesn't happen to be one of them. That's where I come in. I'm going to tell you not only what it is, but how to get some.
Azeen's Afghani Restaurant, in Old Town Pasadena, is fairly new, and just lovely. When we came in at 7 pm on a Saturday night, we had a reservation, but we certainly could have done without one--this place doesn't seem to have really been "discovered" yet. Of course, that made for a pleasant and smooth evening for us, but because we had such a nice time there, we were anxious to see it do well.
The decor is...well, I'm guessing it's Afghani, but I'm no expert. I'm never good at describing this kind of thing, but I will say that it was a small, light space. The walls and tablecloths were white (or at least light-colored), and it felt clean and bright, but not sterile. I recall there having been a theme of maroon decoration (rugs?) with some silver or gold sequins for an exotic feel. Nothing garish. I think there might have been a carved elephant or a tusk on a wall. I could also be making this all up. Our memories can play tricks on us--maybe I just really WANTED to see sequins and elephants.
I've gone on too long about this. The decoration was perfect and tasteful. I wouldn't have changed a thing.
Afghani food is apparently a sort of hybrid of Middle Eastern (Lebanese, Armenian, Persian) and Indian food. The woman who seated us was someone more than just a server, like a manager or an owner or something, and she told us right away that lamb was what they considered their specialty. She also made sure she was very available to answer our questions. I am a little disappointed, in hindsight, that she wasn't clearer about the size of the dishes. They didn't have as much food as I would have expected. It was fine for my group, because we were three fairly small eaters. But future patrons should be warned: I think part of the problem was that we were clearly trying to do a family-style thing, and the entrees weren't really designed for that.
We actually ended up ordering from a different guy, our server--so maybe it was his responsibility to tell us that the dishes weren't huge. I feel like this is starting to sound more negative than I want it to sound (I REALLY liked this place!), so I'm going to start saying good things again.
We ordered three appetizers.
AUSHAK: "Leek and scallion filled dumplings, topped with yogurt and meat sauce, sprinkled with mint." Absolutely delicious. Maybe my favorite dish of the evening. The dumplings were kind of a steamed thing with a wonton-like skin, but they sat flat on the plate, 'cause scallions don't have a lot of bulk as a filling. An old review described these as "tasty little fried scallion doughnuts" ([BROKEN LINK REMOVED]), but ours weren't fried at all, so either this person is nuts or they've changed it since then. The yogurt meat sauce was DELICIOUS--which is a good thing, because we were to see it again. The yogurt was rich and tangy, and the meat sauce, though also rich, was the perfect complement. It all went together really well. I guess in the end, the dumpling was a vehicle for the sauce, but it was the perfect vehicle--mild and soft, but with a slight crunch from the scallions and leeks. I don't remember being aware of the mint, but it sure didn't hurt anything. I think there were maybe 5 or 6 of these in an order, and each was a bit smaller than a square post-it note (my desk is my point of reference right now--aren't you glad I'm hard at work here?).
PAKAWRA-E-BADENJAN: "Batter dipped, sauteed eggplant topped with yogurt and meat sauce." Same yogurt/meat sauce, different vehicle. This was also delicious, but there was something about the steamed dumplings that I liked a little better with this sauce--maybe because the eggplant was fried, so it didn't cut into the richness of the sauce as much. Still, I could have downed the whole plate. There were 4 of these little semi-circular guys. Also about post-it sized (don't ask me to get creative right now).
SAMBOSA: "Fried pastries filled with ground beef and chickpeas." Sound familiar? Take away the 'B' and give this dish a slightly thicker skin, and you've got samosas. An order had 4 of these, and it was served with something at least very similar to that familiar spicy green chutney that usually comes with samosas. These, like samosas, were very tasty. Nothing too exciting, though. Order if you like samosas and green chutney. You get the idea. Oh, and let them cool off a bit before you try to eat them. They're hard to taste when you don't.
I think if I were to go back, I'd really want to try MANTU: "Steamed dumplings filled with chopped beef, onions and herbs, topped with yogurt and sauteed mixed vegetables." It seems to combine most of the things I really liked about the appetizers we got.
We also ordered three entrees, but first, "All entrees are served with Afghani bread and salad."
The salad was fine. The lettuce was basically iceberg, with a couple of tomatoes, and a delicious yogurt dressing with dill. You eat it for the dressing. The bread was underwhelming and unspecial. You never hear anyone talk about Afghani bread the way they talk about naan or whatever that Ethiopian stuff is called (the name escapes me at the moment), and now I know why. It was sort of like if CPK decided to start giving you focaccia at the beginning of your meal with those little butter packets, instead of those styrofoam bread slices, this is what it would be. But don't worry--at least you won't run out of the stuff. They give you a little plate piled surprisingly high with it.
"All kabobs are marinated in herbs and fine spices, charbroiled and served with PALLAW. Our PALLAW is seasoned and browned rice."
KABOB-E-CHUPAN: "Tender pieces of lamb loin chop." According to the person in our party who had been here once before, we meant to order KABOB-E-GOUSFAND: "Tender cubes of lamb." But we didn't. This is really the dish that surprised me with its smallness. It came with three little lamb chops, which was good in one sense because there were three of us--no fighting! They were extremely well done and flavorful. I could have eaten more. I think the chops must have been on skewers, because I'm remembering some skewered cherry tomatoes and some onions. The rice that came with it was good--no big surprise.
QUABILI PALLAW: "Tender pieces of lamb under a mound of PALLAW, topped with carrot strips and raisins." If you like that sour/buttery Persian thing where they mix dried cherries or raisins with flavorful rice, then this is the dish for you. The carrot strips were cooked, sweet, and mild. The lamb underneath the rice was boneless and fork-tender, which I really like. It was also quite flavorful. Not charbroiled, however--I think it may have been somehow cooked with the rice. It wasn't clear to me. This dish also featured a heartier serving of lamb than the previous one.
CHALLAW KADU: "Sauteed butternut squash, topped with yogurt." Perfectly cooked, sweet, tender butternut squash, with the same rich and tangy yogurt sauce from the appetizers (sans meat). This dish apparently came with seasoned white rice, but I don't remember it. I don't tend to eat a lot of rice. In any event, this was fantastic, if you like butternut squash. I can't imagine it done any better.
We had to try dessert, because who knows what Afghani dessert was like? To enjoy with our dessert, we ordered AFGHAN TEA (with cardamom), which was unsurprising if you know what cardamom tastes like, but fragrant and tasty (you know, if you like cardamom).
FIRNEE: "A light pudding with almonds and pistachios served chilled." Mmm. Just as described. Definitely light, and a little gelatinous (in a good way). A member of our party asked the server what "that flavor" was in the pudding, and she answered without missing a beat: "rose water." Of course! Once she said it, it became really obvious. I really enjoyed this fragrant pudding.
BAGHLAVA: Guess what Greek classic this dessert mimicked? I'll give you three guesses. "Thin layers of pastry with walnuts and pistachios, syrup soaked." Yup. Pretty standard. This one was drier than most other baklava I've tasted, which, for some reason, I actually really liked. Maybe it was because of the combination with the rosy pudding. I'm not sure why, but I definitely enjoyed the firmness and dryness of this dessert. It was sweet, but not too cloyingly sweet at all, which I think can also be a failing of baklava at times. Otherwise, it was baklava-like. Yum.
All in all, I was very satisfied. I urge people to try this place, because I'd like it to do well and stick around. It was an extremely pleasant experience; we had attentive service and well-prepared food. Also, I don't know where else one can get Afghani food, and I think everyone should get a chance to at least try it. Don't you?
Azeen's Afghani Restaurant
110 E. Union St.