If it were up to me, and me alone, I would probably eat some combination of ramen noodles, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and chips and salsa. Before I met my wife 10 years ago, my restaurant habits consisted mostly of fast food, Denny’s and, if I was feeling particularly experimental, maybe I’d go to TGI Fridays or something. Such is the sad state of affairs for the typical college-age white American male.
Well, thankfully for my health, Megan does actually a bit of a passion for food, and she is generally right (as most wives are). When she decides on experimenting with a strange new place, I go along with it without complaint (as a good husband should). My palate has expanded quite a bit as a result as I’ve realized just how many ways there are in the world to craft tasty food. So when she suggested an Afghan restaurant that was situated on the border of the San Juan side of Greenback Lane, I agreed, albeit somewhat tentatively. Our only experience with Middle-Eastern cuisines was Turkish food, but this didn’t prepare me for such a different flavor palate. Little did I know that this adventure would actually open me up to a whole new realm of flavors and experiences.
So, while this article is specifically about this restaurant, I do also want to stress that this restaurant turned me onto Afghan food. I don’t have any experience with Afghan food beyond this restaurant, but it now fits within my comfort zone. So who knows, maybe this is about Afghan food in general. I would imagine this place is one of the better examples of Afghan food. But maybe I’ll find another restaurant that’s even better! I don’t know! Maybe I’ll ditch my starchy American diet for an entirely Afghan inspired diet after eating t an even better place. Ah, who am I kidding, I am American after all. But if you’re looking for some spice to break you out of your bland diet, I highly recommend checking out a highly rated Afghan restaurant.
It was a bright and sunny day, we’d just gotten off of work, and we both had giant raccoon eyes. I was so tired and hungry that I didn’t even care where we ate, as long as we did so. And so when we arrived at the entrance and found a mostly empty strip mall with no sign of any restaurants, I had to check to make sure we were at the right address. But that’s when I saw the brief inkling of a sign, not of doom or terror, but of the letters “B” and “Y” and maybe “am.” It was all hidden behind a giant bush, and tucked into an unfortunate corner created by a sudden elevation in the walkway of this particular strip mall.
I wandered towards this semblance of a sign and found one of the busiest doors I’ve ever seen. It was filled with advertisements of its Hookah Bar, health inspections, awards, sponsorships, etc. It was as if the entrance was telling me, “This place is okay to eat. Really. Truly. Please come in…” Once again, this was setting off red flags, but I trudged onward. Also, the mention of the Hookah bar, while intriguing, was also another red flag. To be clear, I’ve shared one of those strange multi-armed charcoal smoking contraptions with friends before and I certainly understand the appeal. But when a place that is supposed to be serving food advertises that they have stuff you can smoke things out of inside the restaurant, well let’s just say I didn’t even think that was legal anymore.
But you can’t judge a book by its cover (otherwise no one would buy Robert Jordan books). So we went inside. We were seated rather quickly, given a couple of menus, and it was at this point that I decided to look around the place. It was dead. Empty. It was weird to be the only people in the restaurant. However, please note that the restaurant had just re-opened for dinner as we walked in and it was also Ramadan, an Islamic observance which is marked by not eating things. Even at Afghan restaurants.
Unfortunately, the waitress was pretty much keeping a close eye on us the entire time, mostly out of curtesy, and the fact that we were the only ones in the restaurant. In order to preserve the authentic customer experience, I didn’t take a lot of pictures of the inside of the restaurant.
But, you can see a little bit of the ambience of the restaurant. From this picture alone, you can tell that the place was designed frugally, but it still looks presentable. The terrible built in carpet has been covered up by a light dusting of Afghan rugs. Most of the chairs and tables are the fairly standard wooden tables and chairs that could be found within most middle-class dining rooms in 1989. Yet, it’s not a bad look. Maybe it’s because my parents had these chairs when I was growing up, but it seems homely, as if you’re about to experience a truly home cooked meal.
As we were the only ones in the restaurant, we decided to sit in the “premium seating,” as I like to call the booths. Even the booth seating was adorned by Afghan rugs. The walls were literally covered with various designs of afghan rugs, only broken apart by the stereotypically Mediterranean light fixtures. That plaque on the back wall commemorates the year that the American military set up shop in Afghanistan, and was one of many pro-American sentiments strewn across the restaurant. I decided not to ask the waitress about the pro-American decorations, as I imagined she didn’t know anyway. But I wondered if they were there for the owner or for the customers. While the amount of rugs being used teetered dangerously on the edge of excessive, it was still tasteful. It was a frugal set up, but it worked.
Behind the booth seating, there is an elevated section with a long buffet table and about a dozen large pillows. I found out that this the hookah lounge. Bamiyan’s Hookah options very throughout the year, but I was delighted to find out that they frequently offered an Afghani feast for large parties to share while enjoying puffs from their Hookah. Although I didn’t try it on this trip, I’ve resolved to do so and let you know how it goes on a future endeavor.
Oh yeah, and they serve food too
While I was getting lost in the ambience, the waitress brought over the customary “starch + dip” that Americans are used to getting for free at restaurants. We tried a bite of it. And then this was all that was left before I could take a picture. I’m not sure what this bread was, since the website and the menu only describe it as “Afghan bread.” There are several types of Afghan bread, but I couldn’t find much of an analogue for this one. The bread itself tasted like a standard flaky biscuit bread. But my first experience with the sauce was encompassed entirely by surprised taste buds and an intense desire to try it again. This was my first taste of the Afghani flavor palate, and while my taste buds didn’t know what to make of it yet, I started to like it.
I have since convinced myself that this sauce is their cilantro chutney sauce, because it did have the typical citrusy taste of cilantro, yet it was sweet and smoky like a fruity chipotle flavor. A chutney is like a South Asian allspice. It’s a mixture of various spices that goes on tons of South Asian foods, but everyone’s chutney will be different in some way. While most chutneys I’ve had have been spicy, I’ve sometimes you’ll run into a chutney that’s sweet like this one. Regardless, this appetizer prepared my senses for the onslaught they would receive.
Beginning the meal
Despite the bread and dip appetizer, we wanted to try an actual appetizer. After all, when we go exploring, culinarily speaking, we want to check out all the stops along the way. After looking at the appetizer menu, we decided to try something fairly safe. Samosas. Many of you will know what this is, I hope. For those that don’t, no we didn’t order wine and fruit juice. This is an actual dish. To the left is a picture of some Samosas. These aren’t the ones we got, but that’s because they were delicious and disappeared almost instantly. Basically, they are a flaky fried wonton-ish thing stuffed with spiced peas, potatoes, various vegetables, and served with another heaping dose of the cilantro chutney sauce we got with our bread. I expected something vaguely egg roll-like or maybe wonton-like or something like that. I’d taste the bread, I’d taste some more starch, and then I’d get some vague vegetable flavoring that seemed slightly sweet.
Nope. When they say spiced peas, they’re not talking about salt and pepper. You see, it’s quite typical for Samosas to be spiced with chili powder or peppers, turmeric, and ginger, a fact you will be keen to when you take your first bite. It’s not that they are particularly spicy, but the flavor is incredibly powerful. This became a theme throughout the entire experience. Here in America, we are used to an Anglican or German flavor palate, which is to say no flavor. Maybe throw some salt on there, but you’re watching your salt intake, so many not. Typically, our food is either not spiced or is given the mild flavor of cilantro, onions, garlic, and black pepper. While I have experienced various types of cuisine over the years, including Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Thai, and even the crazy bowl of everything called Pho, I have never experienced this powerful of a spice palate. The starch of the crispy outside, the sweetness of the peas, the butteriness of the potatoes, it’s there, but barely. Because it’s really the spices that capture your attention. It’s not even that you just get one super strong spice, which is realistically what you get with any type of curry. You get various spices that pop up in your senses at various times. You’ll go from a soft sweetness to a smoky tanginess (I didn’t think this was possible), to a tanginess with a little bitter (that’s the ginger by the way), and then finally you’ll get hit with a blast of chili powder.
This flavor palate continues on with the drink that I ordered. I saw an entry mentioning “Afghan Tea on Ice” and I had to try it. I secretly have an intense love of tea, but I’d never tried the famous Afghani cardamom tea that I’d heard of before. To the right is what it looked like after I’d taken my first sip/gulp of this delicious beverage. Like most legit Asian teas, this one is made with milk, instead of water. Because if you’ve ever had Chai tea with milk, you’d understand how milk can turn a fairly standard tea into something truly special.
And this tea is special. Once again, this tea follows the confusing but wonderful spice palate that I’d been experiencing throughout this meal so far. It’s sweet, but it has cardamom in it. Imagine a milky sweetness edged by a combination of cinnamon and chili powder. It’s almost like a Horchata that tastes like it should be spicy, but never burns.
For the main meal, Megan and I thought long and hard about the menu choices. We didn’t want to get the same thing, but we wanted to order things that were sufficiently different enough to get a wide breadth of flavor. I inevitably ended up deciding on the Mantoo.
So, I’m going to start with my meal, because I’m most familiar with it. The Mantoo. From the menu description, it was basically filled dumplings swimming in house yoghurt, and served with the restaurants apparently famous pumpkin puree. That’s pretty much exactly what I got. But look at the generous helping of spices, and the pool of yoghurt. It was an impressive and yet also intimidating dish to behold. I tentatively grabbed a dumpling.
And rejoiced in glory. Seriously, this dish was amazing! The dumplings are filled with “mildly spiced beef” and onions. Compared to their previously spiced things, I guess this is mild. This is very much a middle-eastern yogurt, so it’s not sweet and creamy like normal yogurt. It’s tangy, which blends well with the citrusy taste of all that cilantro that’s dumped on the plate. I believe that red spice that’s thrown onto the yoghurt is cardamom, and so I got the same confusing yet wonderful spicy flavor thrown into each bite as I got from the cardamom tea. Combine that with the sweat flavor of yellow split peas and the iron-rich flavor you typically get from spiced beef, and you get an exotic yet very satisfying flavor combination. Once again, these guys are all about taking you along for a spice-rich journey.
Oh and that pumpkin puree? No it doesn’t taste like pumpkin pie. When you think of pumpkin, you think of nutmeg, honestly. That’s what gives pumpkin stuff its distinctive “spice.” When you have real pumpkin without nutmeg, what you taste is something a lot more acidic, like a tomato. This restaurant apparently takes that natural pumpkin flavor and throws in what I am convinced is ginger, which gives it a very mild tangy spiced flavor that dances on your tongue until your next bite.
Megan ended up having the Kofta Dinner. It comes with three Afghani meatballs, brown rice, and potatoes drenched in some sort of spiced and slightly acidic sauce. For those who don’t want to be taken on a crazy spice journey, I recommend this dish. It wasn’t as crazy on the spices and its flavor palate seemed a bit bland compared to the Mantoo, but the quality of the food was still great. That said, this is pretty much as close to meat and potatoes as you get in a place like this, but with a slight Afghani twist. I’d tried this after my senses had been overwhelmed by my dish, so I wouldn’t trust my opinion, but Megan did absolutely love it.
I do plan on going back again. There’s a ton of stuff on that menu I still want to try out, especially now that I’ve been impressed by the Afghani spice palate. I was also a little disappointed that we were both too stuffed to try out dessert. They have Fernee, which is cardamom and pistachio pudding, which sounds downright amazing. They also have a “house desert” that I guess this particular restaurant in Citrus Heights designed. It’s a caramelized apple with honey sauce and rose water, served with a berry fruit sauce. They even have “Afghani ice cream” which is vanilla ice cream with rose water, figs, dates, and pistachios. They all sound amazing, but we’ll have to try it next time.
We’ll probably wait a while before we go back though. As you might notice from their menu, this particular place is a bit on the expensive side. Most meals run around $15-20 each person, which means if you go with a date, expect to spend around $50-70 after appetizers, drinks, and desert.
However, the menu gave me a great idea about a future plot with this place. There are two options on the menu that are exceedingly expensive, and they intrigue me. There is the “Afghan House Dinner Treat” and the “Vegetarian Feast.” Both of these set prices at $35 and $30 per person respectively, but they promise a very traditional afghan feast that is served as if you were invited to an Afghani family’s home (that has a reasonable amount of money, that is). This comes with shish kebabs, rice dishes, dumplings, hot drinks, and desert. However, they require a minimum of 4 people to do it. Now if you combine this group feast with the fact that they have a fairly nice looking hookah bar, and a great wine selection, and I think I’ve got a great spot to have a classy and interesting New Year’s party.
So once again, I have to thank my wife for pulling me out of my shell once again. Because of her, I’ve learned that while food is something that is stupidly necessary, you might as well make the necessary something special. It’s actually one of the major tenants of Buddhism that you should enjoy every single miniscule activity of your life. Dance while brushing your teeth. Sing in the shower. Rock out in the car. And make your meals interesting my experimenting. Who knows, maybe you’ll find a favorite or a passion or even just a cool idea for a party. Either way, if you’ve never tried Afghan food, go ahead and do so. And if you happen to find yourself near the area of Citrus Heights or El Dorado Hills within California, be on the lookout for Bamiyan Afghan Restaurant. Because it’s good stuff.