Farewell, Kabul

Caravan Serai
2175 Ford Pkwy., St. Paul; (651) 690-1935
Hours: Restaurant Tuesday-Sunday 4:30-10:30 p.m.; deli Tuesday-Sunday 11:30 a.m.-8:00 p.m.

Khyber Pass Cafe
1399 St. Clair Ave., St. Paul; (651) 698-5403
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 5:00-9:00 p.m.

For everyday people, Afghanistan is no more. There hasn't been a U.S. embassy there since 1989, and you're not supposed to go there--as the State Department's travel advisory puts it, you'd be "vulnerable to politically and criminally motivated attacks and violence, including robbery, kidnapping, and hostage-taking." So unless you've got a hankering for life-threatening danger, you're not going to experience Afghanistan as a tourist--taking snapshots, sipping cardamom tea, sampling the food.

Like dinner at the professor's: Emel and Masooda Sherzad's Khyber Pass
Craig Bares
Like dinner at the professor's: Emel and Masooda Sherzad's Khyber Pass

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Caravan Serai Restaurant

2175 Ford Parkway
St. Paul, MN 55116

Category: Restaurant >

Region: Highland Park

You can read about Afghanistan, though. About how the Taliban government is hiding Osama bin Laden, the terrorist allegedly responsible for the East African U.S. embassy bombings; about the same government's repressive brand of homegrown Islamic Maoism and the way daily life is threaded with public stonings, beatings, amputations, and executions. You can learn that girls aren't allowed to go to school after age eight, that females must be covered head to toe with a burqua veil when in public, that only a tiny percentage of women are allowed to work outside the home. Coming out of a century of nearly continual upheaval, landlocked between four similarly remote countries--Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Iran, Pakistan--Afghanistan pretty well exists below the popular radar.

Except in places like Caravan Serai in St. Paul's Highland Park neighborhood and Khyber Pass, over in Mac-Groveland. In these Afghan restaurants, the sorrow of exile is palpable: "It's one of the saddest things in my life--that I've never been to Afghanistan, that my baby daughter may never be welcome there," says Nesrine Kayoum, whose father Abdul immigrated to the U.S. in 1956 and opened Caravan Serai in 1971.

"It's been such a boiling pot of trouble for twentysomething years now that it's old news. Ethnic cleansing goes on there, but it doesn't make the newspapers, because it's just another facet of all the many problems. My dad tells me how beautiful it was when he was growing up, how friendly the people were..." Kayoum's voice trails off as she struggles to describe the loss: "My dad would always tell us about how there were 52 kinds of melon at the market. It's hard for me to imagine: Off the top of my head I can think of--what, four types of melon? What is that like?"

Under the billowing tapestry ceiling at Caravan Serai you can sample a bit of what it must be like. The main dining room mimics a tent, with low tables, floor cushions, and squat, century-old Afghan armchairs. From your low perch, you have a good view of the performances on the modest stage (music on Tuesday through Thursday, music and a roaming belly dancer Fridays and Saturdays). As the thump of drums reverberates off the mural-adorned walls, you can tuck into a menu that features nearly three dozen dishes from Afghanistan as well as popular dishes from the Middle East (baba ghannouj), India (tandoori chicken), Greece (gyros)--and some American ones as well, like a fried-chicken-tender dinner.

On my visits I tried to focus on the Afghan dishes, sampling appetizers like the bolanee (deep-fried triangular pastries filled with spinach, $2.95) and the sambosa (egg-roll style cylinders of pastry and lentils, $3.25). Both were good, crisp, and served with a fresh, plain yogurt sauce. I couldn't honestly call them extraordinary, however, and when those first courses were combined with complimentary deep-fried pita chips and mayonnaisey garlic sauce, I felt a little besieged by oil. (All the entrées come with those crisp pita chips, and a choice of soup or salad; factor in the free floor show and you're looking at quite a bargain.)

The appetizer bademjan boranee ($4.95) was light enough, but I'd only order it again after deciding on an entrée since the sautéed eggplant-and-tomato combination appears, in whole or in part, in several other dishes. By far the best meal-starter I had at Caravan Serai was the simplest--the hot, fresh naan ($3.95), a legal-pad sized piece of biscuity flatbread served with a fine hummus.

My favorite main courses were those unified by curry, such as the savory beef roti (chunks of meat, carrots and potatoes tucked into pieces of flatbread, $12.95), and the perky rogan josh (lamb simmered in curry with fresh slices of ginger, $12.95). Other entrées seemed to fall short of their promise--the pach e gosfand ($12.95), a lamb shank, was tender, but dense, thick, and further encumbered by a thick lid of creamed spinach. The sabzi palau ($11.50), pieces of steak simmered in that same creamed spinach, resembled a cafeteria-style baked casserole. The vegetarian aushak ($8.95), of which I've had wonderful versions elsewhere, was most disappointing--pieces of pasta folded around a leek and chive center seemed like they had been made too far in advance. Since they were topped with the same tomato sauce I'd just had in the bademjan boranee, I tired of them at first bite.

I was delighted, however, to discover the restaurant's impressive little wine list--nearly 50 bottles, the majority priced under $25, about equally split between crowd pleasers (like the seven chardonnays, which I can't imagine pairing with any of the potent foods here) and an ample selection of wines that actually could stand up to the garlic-, curry-, and chile-laden fare.

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