929 W. 80th St., Bloomington; 888-5824.
There are a lot of places where people aren't meant to be. The grassy medians that separate highways, the unlined service roads that connect big box stores, and the Bloomington industrial area where Da Afghan is. You drive up indirectly and park in front of a building that gives no tip-off as to what's going on inside. Snow blows across the parking lot and the lights of the 494 strip illuminate the far-off skyline like the glow of an open refrigerator. There's not a squeak of noise to be heard except for the freeway's muffled roar--in short, it's a perfectly cinematic spot for illicit money swaps. To say there's no there there doesn't begin to touch it.
Yet, when you push open the door, there are people laughing. There are tables groaning under piles of delicious dishes. There are carpets on the tables, and talkative, incredibly helpful waiters. There are ruddy, blond or silver-haired Minnesotans roaring away over things that you wouldn't particularly expect Midwesterners to be gaga over: Flintstones-sized lamb shanks scented with garlic and pickled onions, bright fresh-chili chutneys, footed glasses steaming with cardamom-rich tea.
It's as if Da Afghan purposely set out to break every single rule of restauranteering. Logically, Da Afghan should have been forced to shut its doors mere days after it opened, and yet here it is, making preparations for its 10-year anniversary season. To celebrate, Da Afghan's owners, Ghafar and Laila Lakanwal, will offer their loyal customers dancing, sitar, and tabla music (tablas are a sort of drum) and a whole host of specialties that ordinarily aren't on the daily menu. The Lakanwals bend over backwards to please their customers, their customers become very, very pleased and return again and again, the Lakanwals conceive of better and better ways to please them, the circle begins again, and suddenly there's an impossibly successful restaurant in the flat industrial tundra of nowhere.
Ghafar, a political refugee and Ph.D. from Afghanistan who also heads the Minnesota Cultural Diversity Center, doesn't think there's anything unusual about their success: "In Afghani culture we believe that guests are a gift of God to you, and you have to be nice to them, and treat them well, and provide them with the very best food and hospitality that you can. When you are in an Afghan's home they offer you their very best food, whatever they have they will offer you."
That very best food can be quite impressive. The Friday special of a lamb shank cooked until fork-tender with aromatic spices and served with pickled red onions and potatoes on a thin, papery sheet of naan (flat bread) is succulent and deeply flavorful. The fresh-spinach aushok ($10.95) are equally wonderful; they're ravioli-like thin pasta shells stuffed with a light, springtime mixture of green onions, still-crisp spinach, and spices and served with a dill-laced garlic-yogurt sauce. Some of my other favorites were the spring lamb chops ($16.95), four exquisitely pink morsels seasoned with lemon and oregano and seared 'til they're crisp on the bone. (All the lamb for Da Afghan comes from a family farm in Hutchinson, so it's absolutely fresh. Laila is happy to place special orders, like a crown roast of lamb, for customers.)
Sampler plates allow you to try broad selections of dishes: the vegetarian plate ($16.95 per person) comes with fresh, lemony baba ghanoush, flaky spinach pies, a light and tasty preparation of okra in a vegetable-rich tomato sauce, eggplant cubes served with korma sauce, a changing selection of braised vegetables, and two kinds of rice. The Afghani sampler ($19.95 per person) has two kinds of kabob--one a yogurt-marinated chicken and the other a lemony lamb--a delicious chicken breast smothered in a sauce of carrots, raisins, and slivered almonds, the aushok, a stew of lamb, mushrooms, and tomatoes, and an eggplant korma topped with the garlic-yogurt sauce. These feasts, for two or more people, are served on gigantic, ornate platters that make you feel regal, and all are accompanied by some of the best baklava in town. Other desserts, like the shir brinj, a rice pudding dusted with pistachios ($2.75), are fine, but seem like an afterthought to the remarkable entrées.
The waiters are universally friendly and helpful, without being obtrusive, and will always suggest dishes to match your taste or substitutions in case there's something you don't like (substituting beef for lamb, for example). As they move from table to table, old customers regale them with stories, roaring with laughter at trivial things like the weather, or how much they've eaten, things you can only laugh at when you're utterly comfortable and perfectly well fed. It's a pleasant place, and almost a secret, since it seems like the only people who know about it are those who have been there already. So here's the hot tip for January, February, and March: Right up through March 21, the day of the traditional Afghani New Year's celebration, there will be a constant party and a wonderful feast in the absolutely unlikeliest place.
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