We've heard all about the heart, but does absence make the palate grow fonder, too?
If it's top-notch Afghan cuisine — something the Valley's been deprived of since the early '90s — then the answer is an enthusiastic "yes."
To my knowledge, the long-defunct Chopandaz in Tempe was the first and last place in the Valley to offer the culinary specialties of Afghanistan. But now there's a newcomer called Kabab Palace, a family-owned business that opened last October in a Tempe strip mall at Elliot and Kyrene.
Kabab Palace, 710 West Elliot Road, Suite 108, Tempe
Theeka kabab: $14.95
Sabzi challow: $9.95
480-775-6288 Hours: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.
You'd be forgiven for thinking this place is a nondescript Middle Eastern restaurant, as the name, and certainly the location, don't reveal anything unusual.
However, the food is worth seeking out, especially if you're a fan of Persian or Indian cuisine. Afghan food includes kebabs (obviously) and aromatic rice dishes similar to the former, as well as complex stews and sautés reminiscent of the latter. But it's certainly craveworthy on its own, with distinctive seasonings that occasionally bring the heat — although not in the tongue-searing way that Indian food sometimes does. Afghan cuisine also celebrates the savory-sweet dynamic, something I've always found delicious.
The absence of Afghan restaurants from the local scene was exactly what prompted owners Haroon Sherzai and Jalal Achakzai to set up shop in this area.
"There's no competition!" says Sherzai, laughing.
Of course, the fact that Kabab Palace is the only game in town doesn't diminish the tastiness of the food, or the experience that these restaurateurs bring to their business.
Before coming here, Sherzai and Achakzai ran an Afghan restaurant in San Francisco; Achakzai was the chef there for 16 years. After that spot closed, they intended to open another eatery in the Bay Area, but then a couple of acquaintances from Phoenix, including the brother of the former owner of Chopandaz, encouraged them to relocate to Arizona.
I'm glad they did. After visiting their seven-month-old restaurant, I've found myself hungry for particular dishes. (Friends who joined me there for dinner have since mentioned how much they enjoyed it, too.) I was also impressed with the attentive, helpful service. Sherzai and his cheerful young daughter, clad in spiffy white shirts with black pants, vests, and bow ties, checked in frequently to answer questions and make sure everything was okay.
The atmosphere didn't fool me into thinking I wasn't still in a strip mall, but thanks to a dusty shade of cornflower on the walls and chair upholstery, it was soothing, not sterile. Crystal chandeliers, intricate Afghan tapestries, and sheer, shimmery window drapes dressed it up a bit.
My first visit was for the lunch buffet. It's currently available Monday through Friday, but Sherzai tells me they'll start offering it on Saturdays as well. There was a generous selection of dishes, from shorwa, a robust lamb soup with vegetables, to laghatac, a zesty eggplant sauté with tomatoes and peppers. The tender, almost creamy texture of the eggplant was so good that I went back for seconds.
Meanwhile, a few pieces of mourgh kabab, charbroiled, marinated chicken, were dry. That was the lone dish that kept me from cleaning my plate. It's just as well, I guess, because then I had room for a bowl of sheerberang, which was some of the tastiest rice pudding I've had in a long time. Topped with crushed pistachios and perfumed with cardamom, it was denser than the Indian version, but remarkably silky on the tongue.
Kabab Palace's lunch buffet was a nice way to sample a wide swath of the menu, but I certainly wouldn't judge the place on the buffet alone. From mouth-watering presentations to flavorful preparations, dinner was worth the return visit.
I liked the appetizers so much that I could've gladly made a meal out of them, and indeed, the aushak, a kind of Afghan ravioli, was also available as an entree. These delicate, paper-thin dumplings were filled with leeks and scallions, topped with ground beef and mint, and served atop a pool of garlic and mint-accented yogurt sauce (which was a creamy accompaniment to numerous dishes here). Banjan, pan-fried eggplant baked with tomatoes, also made good use of that sauce.
The most unusual (and frankly, most delectable) flavor combination here featured sweet, pan-fried-then-baked baby pumpkin with garlic-yogurt sauce and fragrant ground beef sauce. Called kaddo, it had the soft, sugary appeal of candied yams, tempered with tangy and savory sauces — kind of like dessert, but not quite. On the flip side, the potato-chickpea salad called shornakhod, served with baby greens and cilantro vinaigrette, was pretty minimalist and not as memorable.
Kabab Palace's house naan, made with a blend of regular and whole wheat flour, was fresh, and great for soaking up all the sauces, but not really noteworthy on its own. However, I liked the trio of condiments — cilantro-walnut, yogurt-mint, and red chile sauces — as well as two kinds of traditional boiled-then-baked rice. Challow was the lighter one, speckled with cumin seeds, while pallow, seasoned with cumin seeds, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, and black pepper, had a discernible flavor that hinted at sweetness without actually being sweet. Most of the entrees came with one of these.
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Lamb loomed large on the menu, showing up in half a dozen dishes. I tried it in dwopiaza and sabzi challow, and was torn between the two. The first, a sauté made with marinated, grilled leg of lamb, yellow split peas, and marinated onions, had a more vibrant flavor, and it also came with a side of garlicky mushrooms. However, the chunks of lamb were much moister in the second dish, sautéed with mildly seasoned spinach.
Vegetarian kourma challow was a zesty, garlic-tinged jumble of potatoes, turnips, green beans, carrots, onions, tomatoes, and cauliflower; the addition of cilantro perked up the flavors. But it wasn't nearly as dynamic as koufta challow, moist, beefy meatballs in a spicy tomato sauce with peppers, peas, and sundried tomatoes. In the way of kebabs, theeka kabab consisted of prime rib chunks that had been marinated in garlic, onion, and sundried baby grapes, and then grilled with pieces of pepper. They were nicely charred and juicy inside, definitely worthy of the restaurant's namesake.
Besides rice pudding, there was a handful of homemade desserts to pair with strong Turkish coffee. Feereny, a thick, creamy pudding, was lightly sweet and, like the rice pudding, tasted of cardamom and pistachio. Homemade mango ice cream was simple and refreshing, and bucklawa — a honey-drenched confection otherwise known as baklava — had many layers of pastry, which gave it a doughy flavor. As with other dishes at Kabab Palace, it was similar to versions I've had elsewhere, but still quite unique.
For the moment, Kabab Palace is literally one of a kind in the Valley. But I'm sure that if anyone else decided to open an Afghan restaurant in town, they'd face some stiff competition.