2339 Central Ave. NE, Minneapolis
Of all the odd enthusiasms I've picked up during a decade in the Midwest, among the most unexpected has been my deep and still growing respect for the women of Fridley--and, for that matter, all the women emerging from the string of northern baby-boom working-class suburbs. I mean, every Fridley girl I've ever met has filled me with a profound and comforting sense that this is the tribe of people most likely to pull your ass out of a thresher, make bail for your brother, and compose a tater-tot casserole, all before loading the kids in the van for school. They are a fearless, no-nonsense, getting-stuff-done group, and I like them.
So on some bone-deep level, I wasn't surprised at all to learn that the person who is perhaps the Midwest's most accomplished Afghan baker is a Fridley lass. Nicole Azizi (née Gray) just kills me. She's followed one of those unique paths that has led her thoughts and heart from the northern suburbs to Kabul City and has resulted in the creation of what I'm betting is America's only Afghan pineapple pizza.
It all started, says Nicole Azizi, whom I interviewed by phone for this story, with her freethinking parents. "My parents allowed me to choose what [religion] I wanted to be," says Azizi. "Though they thought I'd choose something in the realm of Christianity. But I went to different types of churches, different denominations in Christianity, but didn't feel like my questions were being answered. So I went to bookstores, bought a Koran, and that was that. The majority of people just take up their parents' religion without really studying it for themselves," says Azizi. "If you're born a religion, you tend to stay it. But when I was studying, I felt like Christianity didn't fit me and wasn't comfortable. So not long after I graduated [from the University of Wisconsin at River Falls] I converted to Islam, and three and a half years ago I married my husband."
Her husband Meerwais hails from Kabul City, where he had been a baker. More recently, he was a manager at Holy Land in northeast Minneapolis. "For years he was telling me: This is what we did [back in Afghanistan and Pakistan], this is why it was better, this is how it should be done. Finally I said: Either do it or don't tell me about it anymore. So my mom and I painted the walls together, and we opened [in the fall of 2000]. We just thought we'd be a bakery, but now everything has just kind of broadened, and now I live in the bakery: I do the baking, I do the bread, I do the cooking. No, I never thought when I was a kid that I'd become an Afghani chef, but where life takes us is always unknown; that's what's so exciting about it."
In the wake of 9/11, Azizi says, interest in the little restaurant in Northeast boomed: "We were actually very surprised. Lots of neighborhood people came in and said, 'I'm sorry to hear about your country.' I mean, we did have some people that were very rude and threatening, but the majority of the people were very nice and very, very supportive."
Well, it's hard not to be nice to people who serve such good food. And who write such great menus: "Yummy yum yum, Tikka Kabobs" and "Warning: Unique taste sensations!" certainly rank as two of my favorite bits of menu copy ever. That the tikka kabobs are actually pretty darn yummy yum yum helps: I particularly liked the ground-chicken one--a long meatloaf-like cylinder of minced chicken blended with spices and baked. It's surprisingly juicy and tastes both sharp and mild in the most interesting way--it reminded me of everything I like about paprika and everything I like about tamales. You can get that chicken tikka kabob with either bread, Afghan salad (chopped romaine, cucumbers, and tomatoes), and sweet, light rice Kabuli "palouw" (a rice pilaf made with raisins and decorated festively with shreds of carrot) for $9.99; or an enormous platter along with just about every other thing the restaurant serves, at $23.99 for two people, or $31.99 for four. That Afghan combination plate is just an outrageously large amount of food, offering the chicken tikka kabob, a spicy ground lamb "shami" tikka kabob, vegetable kabobs, kabobs of whole chunks of marinated lamb and chicken, gyro meat, a meat-and-potato stew, salad, pilaf, bread, and a couple of dishes of sharp chutneylike sauces. I think the portion for two feeds three, and I can't even imagine how many the portion for four serves. No wonder the place is jam-packed with bargain hunters on a Saturday night. (Of course, there's no alcohol served in this strictly halal place.)
The other must-haves are the pizzas and the pies ($2.99), flatbread turnovers filled with meat or cheese or, my favorite, spinach, in which chopped greens are combined with sautéed onions and what tastes like sumac. It's a lemony, vegetal combination that works terrifically well. (These pies heat up well at home, too. Anyone looking for quick healthy dinners might consider stocking a freezer.) The pizzas are probably what will put this place on the map, though. Order an Afghan pizza ($11.99, more for extra toppings) and you'll get a vast platter spilling over with yeasty puffy bread that's glazed with homemade tomato sauce, layered with a nicely sharp and salty cheese blend, and strewn with any number of toppings, including spicy Afghan beef, hot peppers, or, you know, pineapple. The bread itself is roasty, yeasty, and sweet; the toppings are piquant and sharp; and the whole thing pretty easily serves three. But I think my favorite thing about it is how it's cut in the classic bizarro Minnesota Pizza Grid configuration. I'm betting that never before and never again will the Fridley/Kabul City axis be so clearly articulated in food. A lightly sauced, cheese-heavy pizza with hot peppers and pineapple? What's more Minnesotan than that? And yet, done on Afghan bread and served with a spicy-sour green herb sauce that bears a strong resemblance to cilantro chutney, it's particular to that restaurant and to that chef's experience and vision. It's one of those things that's such a delight to find in the world, such a distinct perfect flower.
I do recommend Crescent Moon with this caveat though: The place doesn't quite get the niceties of restaurant culture. It's counter-service and bus-your-own-tables, à la McDonald's but without the clear signage or quick service you need to make that model work. It's hard to tell what the beverages or desserts might be: I thought that anyone visiting was stuck with Arizona iced tea or soda, until my third visit, when I finally figured out that you could order chai tea (milky, sweet black tea perfumed with cardamom and other fragrant spices; $1.59 small, $1.99 large). But order chai, or an appetizer of a cheese pie or spinach pie ($2.99), and you won't get it before the meal; you'll only get it with your hot food. Which is okay in theory. But in practice, sitting at a completely bare table (which the last customers bussed but didn't much sponge off) for 20 minutes or, as I did one busy Saturday night, an hour and a half, is no fun.
I'm willing to cut the place some slack: It's basically a mom-and-pop shop, and when they opened they meant simply to be a bakery. Customer demand has led the place to broaden so quickly that a few growing pains, in company with such consistently good food, seem reasonable. There're more plans in the works, too: An increased vegetarian selection, with lots of spinach and eggplant dishes, is supposed to debut as soon as the Azizis are satisfied with the recipes. "I'm sort of a perfectionist," explains Nicole. "I wanted everything we serve to be the best food you can get, the best bread, the best rice. It takes a lot of practicing, and I've had to take a lot of critiquing from my in-laws. But as it goes, I've figured out my own tricks, my own style. I think if a lot of Afghan people came here, they'd get a big surprise--'What is she doing?'--but I'm doing it my own way. Prior to my marriage I didn't even know where Afghanistan was, so that was also a big surprise."
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