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Chopandaz Afghani Cuisine, 1849 North Scottsdale Road, Tempe, 947-4396. Hours: Lunch, Tuesday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Tuesday through Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m.
Some years ago, I happened to be riding a bus in northern Iran headed toward the Afghanistan border. It was winter. The weather was dark and threatening. When the snow first began falling, I kept focused on the spectacular landscape, viewing a countryside dotted with people who looked like they were called from Central Casting to participate in a National Geographic special.
But as the storm thickened, I noticed that the speeding bus driver seemed to be the only person in the history of Iran who took the word "schedule" as an order and not a suggestion.
As we careened down the road, my frightened fellow passengers burst into prayer. As far as I could make out, their lamentations speculated disturbingly on the nature of the hereafter, a destination that seemed a lot closer than the one we originally set out for.
I recalled those prayers as we headed to Chopandaz, an Afghani restaurant in Tempe. This time, though, we were less concerned about the hazards of driving than the hazards of dining. Our group of Middle Eastern veterans feared inauthentic food, expensively priced.
Happily, most of our prayers were answered.
Chopandaz is the term for a master of the Afghani sport of buzkashi. There's no danger of Americans huddled around the TV watching Monday Night Buzkashi, however. The game involves dozens of horsemen trying to lug a headless calf across a goal. The restaurant still sports plenty of signs of its previous life as a Roundtable Pizza parlor: brick walls, green-shaded bankers' lamps and rest rooms labeled "Knights" and "Maidens."
But there are enough artifacts--Persian-style carpets and ornamental woven strips--to prove that someone made a trip to the bazaar. Piped-in Afghani music added to the ambiance, at least until we were inexplicably serenaded with the theme from Love Story. Wedged between Iran and the Indian subcontinent, Afghanistan draws much of its culture and cuisine from its neighbors. The food is a marvelous meld, distinctively seasoned, but not spicy hot.
We started off with the appetizer combo, which tilted toward Indian tastes. Pickawra are thin-sliced, battered potatoes, like breaded home fries. Sambosa are four bite-size, flaky pastries filled with mildly seasoned ground beef and vegetables. Best, I thought, are the boulanee, small turnovers filled with a zippy mix of leeks and green onions.
These come with three wonderful chutneys for dipping: tomato, yogurt mint and a spicy cilantro. And there's also a basket of sesame-flecked Middle Eastern bread that's miles better than most of the dinner rolls that grow hard on restaurant tables. Meals all come with soup, a September touch suited more to Kabul than Tempe. Still, the tomato broth, softened by creamy yogurt and lightly studded with ground beef and kidney beans, had a pleasing, delicate taste.
The four of us managed to sample all nine dinner entrees (several can be prepared vegetarian-style) by going the combination-plate route. Aushak, a traditional Afghani dish, is superb. Thin pasta sheets, like flattened ravioli, are filled with tangy green onions and ground beef, and topped with a mild yogurt sauce. It's good enough to have made Marco Polo linger a season in Afghanistan on his way back to Italy.
Kabeli, a tantalizing combination of lamb, slivered almonds, thin carrot strips and raisins on seasoned basmati rice, sounded better than it tasted. The principal culprit: rice that reminded us of Rice-A-Roni. The perfumed fragrance of basmati rice was completely smothered.
The platter of plain basmati rice accompanying the dinners also had problems. The fact that the owner-chef was out of the country and the cooking was handled by subs may have been the reason. The rice was dried-out and tough, as if it had been sitting around too long. Besides rice, kebabs are the other keys to Middle Eastern cooking. Little kebab shops are the McDonald's of that corner of the Earth. Carnivores will be pleased that Chopandaz does them right: long-marinated, juicy sirloin; fragrant, tender lamb; and surprisingly flavorful chicken breast.
Even better, to my mind, is bahnjahn bouranee, an edible ode to eggplant lovers like me. Here, thick slabs of the purple vegetable come slathered with ground beef and some thick yogurt. I could eat this every day and not get tired of it. Not in the same league, unfortunately, are morgh lawand and saebzi chalow. Boneless chicken in yogurt sauce, morgh lawand lacked the zesty blend of spices I expect in this neck of the woods. And the saebzi chalow, a mound of indifferently seasoned spinach, seemed more attuned to the tastes of the Middle West than the Middle East.
You have a choice of only two desserts, but both are terrific. The rice pudding is rich and intensely sweet, topped with crushed pistachios. And the baklava is fresh and moist, dripping with honey and nuts.
Under no circumstances, though, should you pass up qymak chai, an opulent tea drink that left us breathless with adoration. Sweet, creamy and hearty, this was treat enough to substitute for dessert.