Crystal Bistro Afghani Cuisine
6408 Bass Lake Road, Crystal
Of all the things I've learned in life, the one that has yet to be contradicted is this: If two separate readers, unknown to one another, take the time to write to me about a little restaurant in the middle of nowhere, then the time has come to get in the car and go go go!
Which is exactly how I found myself in Crystal, not too far from the Target, right in the little strip mall with Eggie's Café. Which is how I found myself in a scarlet booth sampling a world of excellent Afghani comfort foods. (Thanks, Maggi! Thanks, Cheryl!) There were boulanee ($5.95), which are kind of like the quesadillas of Afghani cuisine. For these, thin sheets of pastry are folded around one of two fillings, either fresh spinach sautéed with green onions or savory, seasoned mashed potatoes, and then they're pan-fried and served with a cooling yogurt.
Every table at the Crystal Bistro is topped with two pots of house-made hot sauce: The green one is full of fresh-chopped cilantro, and has a tart, zingy joy to it; the red one is made with lots of chili pepper, and is no kidding. You take a boulanee, dot on some hot sauce, spoon on some yogurt—and suddenly you see why people are taking up pens for this restaurant. These boulanee have the same magical, savory, spicy, snacky cool that potato skins or nachos do; you finish one plate and want six more to follow it.
I also tried a particularly rich and roasty version of baba ghanoush ($4.95), sturdy homemade spinach pies ($5.50), grape leaves ($4.95), and lightly spicy sambosa pastries, which are kin to samosas, but are baked, and contain a savory mixture of lightly spiced ground beef and onions. Nearly all of the restaurant's appetizers are available in a combo platter, with gyros, for $14.95, in a version that's supposed to serve two but I thought easily served four as a first course. Especially since nearly all of the entrees come with your choice of soup or salad.
That soup is a lentil soup that tastes like mom made it—it's chunky and thick, and has the layers of flavor you only get when someone who really knows how to cook cooks something all day. In this case, it actually is mom who made it—the Crystal Bistro is a real family operation, with Hadi Mohammadzadah, the owner, out front, and his wife, his mom, and his sister cooking. Sometimes you see Hadi's cute little kids, ages five and seven, sitting in a front booth, eating their mom's soup, their little feet dangling from the seat and coming nowhere near the floor. That's family-style! You know you're getting the best soup when you're on the same menu plan as the heirs.
I think the bistro's most craveable entree has to be the aushok ($13.95)—tender, house-made pasta dumplings filled with the same sautéed spinach and green onion mixture as in the boulanee, which obviously presents a problem, as you have to pace yourself and not get two courses of spinach. Unless you're very health-minded, in which case, do some extra reps at the gym for me, won't you?
Mantu, meat-stuffed dumplings, are also very good. As is the banjaan ($12.95), a sort of tomato-eggplant stew: It's savory, slightly accented with sweet spices such as cinnamon, and robust. Beef-stuffed cabbage rolls ($13.95) will be familiar and welcome to any fan of traditional Eastern European comfort foods; they're mellow, mild, and cozy as slippers. Put a couple of beers or glasses of shiraz on the table (the place has a small, good, mostly $20-something, domestic, big-brand wine list), and you've got exactly everything that makes a restaurant a neighborhood gem: It's craveable, real, affordable, homemade, easy, personal, and knowable.
That "knowable" includes Hadi Mohammadzadah himself, who will usually be serving your meal. He's a very personable, friendly sort, good at reading tables and guessing how much interaction they want—a skill learned during the 17 years he put in on the floor of legendary Twin Cities Greek and Mediterranean restaurant Nicklow's. I'll confess that on my first visits I was a bit frosty—I really just wanted to taste the food and see if it was worth anything. Hadi (who's on a first-name basis with everyone; even his business cards omit the surname) did his best to warm me up, though—for instance, sending out a complimentary dessert just for me after determining that my dining companion, allergic to tree nuts, couldn't find anything on the dessert list. (Which reminds me—they have the best baklava ($2.95) in town; it really tastes like pan-toasted walnuts, not merely crunchy honey.) Like most humans, I become extremely friendly when plied with good baklava.
That barrier breached, I still wasn't prepared for the inquiries about my personal life as I made for the exits—did I need a rug? As it happened, I had spent a good chunk of last fall on a quest for just that. It was for this problematic quasi-mud room just inside my back door, so it needed to be cheap and indestructible, but it also, because my quasi-mud room rocks a sort of James J. Hill by candlelight vibe, needed to be Victorian-ish. As you can imagine, the marketplace is not crowded with such rugs.
"Usually they sell for $225 somewhere else," Hadi said, grabbing a coiled eight-foot rug and unfurling it with a snap. "But we sell for $59. Very good quality." The next thing I knew we were off on a whirlwind tour of housewares and furnishings, all arranged near the front register. "This grandfather clock arrived just yesterday, it usually sells for $650, but I sell it for $150," he proclaimed, tapping the wooden case of a tall clock with a big brass pendulum. There were mantle clocks, bunches of flowers threaded with fiber optic lights, oversized porcelain dolls, more.
On subsequent visits I realized that some tables held customers who were working with Hadi to import furniture straight from Asia via manufacturers' wholesale catalogs. I also realized that Hadi has a stable of regulars who come into the restaurant for bespoke feasts: $22.95 per person, for at least two people, gets a procession of special Afghani platters and bowls mounded with generous portions of all the things on his menu, or if you have favorites, more of one thing or another. I was blown away. This is hustle! This is hospitality! Everything you need on this mortal coil he's got for you—man, after all, does not live by bread alone! Why did I never see this before?
Hadi explained that his merchandise has been returned by retailers to the various importers who brought it into the country; however, the importers can't send the stuff all the way back to Asia, so Hadi takes it off their hands, and sells it to you for pennies on the dollar! One of my friends walked out with a screwdriver set. I got a burnt-velvet bed-in-bag duvet set—only $40! Please know that Hadi will not hold anything for anyone, even for his own mother—if you want it, you buy it! Inventory changes hourly!
I'm of two minds about all of this. On the one hand, in today's time-pressed society, I think this is more fabulous than banks in supermarkets: What if all good restaurants also met my home-furnishing needs? Then the good bakeries could send my thank-you notes and do my taxes, and boy howdy, productivity would triple! On the other hand, I don't want Hadi to run afoul of zoning, licensing, or what have you by my publicizing this—but I asked him if it would be okay to write about, and he said to go ahead. So, talk about this amongst yourselves, but don't make too much fuss and alert any problem-makers, okay?
It turns out that Hadi has been working this hard since 1981, when he fled the Soviet army in his native Afghanistan and made his way on foot through back mountains to Pakistan, then India, then Germany, and finally here; once in Minnesota he got almost all of his family over, too. "I don't work a lot, I work only 18 hours a day," explains Hadi. "People ask: How many days do you work, I say eight days a week." He says he can't afford to work any less, for now he's trying to sponsor his wife's mother and get her into the country.
In the end, I guess I've learned one more little thing about life: Sometimes the restaurants you should go go go to are the ones with the most go go go in them.