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.
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.
All that said, I must confess I was rather taken with Caravan Serai--not so much for the food, the penny-pinching prices, or even the (excellent) service, but for the overall experience of sitting in an Afghan tent, listening to Afghan music, and pondering thoughts of exile and the scattered accents of diaspora.
The loss of homeland is central, too, in the thinking--and the art--of Emel Sherzad, who runs quiet Khyber Pass with his wife Masooda. Sherzad is also a talented painter whose canvasses hang on the restaurant's walls. "I think I express my exile in my work," he says. "When I left [Afghanistan], part of me remained back there. I see that part of me expressing itself in various ways--in the tumultuous mountainscapes in my abstract work, in the explosions and unrest there."
Sherzad neatly confines such turmoil to his art, though; his restaurant runs as neatly as a new clock. The food emphasizes fresh herbs and spices, organic ingredients, and clear, strong flavors. Maybe that's why Khyber Pass reminds me of dinner at a college professor's house--considerate, smart, yet essentially homey and modest. The restaurant looks like a professor's kitchen as well, befitting its college-saturated Mac-Groveland neighborhood: The furniture is merely serviceable, but the place brims with artwork and the houseplants in the windows flourish with the vigor of the carefully tended.
Care and consideration are apparent, too, in the hot, quartered pita bread and chutni that precede all the entrées. Chutni is a yummy, salty purée of cilantro, lemon, a bit of garlic, and walnuts--a perfect summer treat alongside a beer. (Summit runs $2.50 here, Leinenkugel's $1.95.) In addition, each entrée comes with basmati rice and salata (a spicy little salad of tomatoes, onions, jalapeños, mint, and lime juice), making me feel as if I were eating for hours at a stretch while never topping $15 a person.
Aushak ($3.25), those pasta dumplings that disappointed me at Caravan Serai, appear on Khyber Pass's menu as an appetizer; on my visit they were delicious, fresh and light as if just assembled, and they disappeared from the table with lightning speed. Khyber Pass's boranee banjan ($2.95) was a fine take on the eggplant-and-tomato theme, the eggplant still springy, the stewed sauce colorful and bright.
The most impressive entrée I had was a special, so take those little photocopied inserts in the menu seriously. Kadoo boranee consisted of honey-touched chunks of butternut squash cooked with tomatoes and onions, jazzed up with a bit of coriander and cayenne, and topped with garlic-laced yogurt--a virtuoso example of complementary contrasts. A vegetarian combo plate ($8.65) featuring sabzi, a dish made of fresh spinach, dal (a chunky version of the lentil stew), and kachaloo (spicy potatoes with green peas) was also exemplary: Each item boasted a unique flavor without the blurring common in long-cooked vegetable dishes. Both entrées were vibrantly spiced by cooks who grind most of their own seasonings in the kitchen.
I didn't have as much luck with the meat dishes I tried. Korma e sabzi ($9.75), a dish of stewed lamb served with spinach, was dry and unpleasant; aush ($9.25) was essentially spaghetti topped with a few different sorts of beans and ground beef. I looked with envy on a neighboring table that had ordered a lamb shish kebab ($9.95); the portion was large, and the couple kept exclaiming how good it was.
Dessert selections at Khyber Pass are modest, but satisfying. I particularly liked a creamy rice pudding ($3.25) studded with pistachios and walnuts that emits a potent cardamom perfume--a scent conducive to melancholy and reflection.
Sherzad is no stranger to those kinds of thoughts. "After we had to leave Afghanistan, I became obsessed with that part of the world," he recalls. "But then when we had kids--well, we essentially decided not to think about it in order to remain sane. It would be quite criminal to take my family there now. We wouldn't survive very long."
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.