More than kabobs

East Market & Restaurant

Good for: exploring Afghan cuisine
Notable dishes: aashak, qabili palaw, bolani

East Market & Restaurant

3405 El Camino Ave.
Sacramento, CA 95821

(916) 973-9951

Wander into East Market & Restaurant and gaze at its aisles of dried fruit, sumac, ornate tableware and halvah. It smells divine, like toasted cumin, cinnamon and coriander. And freshly baked bread.

Follow the wafting scent—or the paper signs—through the market, down a barren aisle and into what looks more like a banquet hall or rehabbed conference room than a restaurant. It’s a weird setup, but you may remember this place once housed the Farmer’s Daughter, a health foods cafe that, in 2012, got busted for illegally operating a cannabis dispensary in the backroom. Yes, this very backroom.

The furniture looks cheap. The patterned turquoise carpet, tacky. The huge chandeliers, gaudy. It sounds unfortunate, but the atmosphere feels completely charming in its own way. The eclectic soundtrack switches between smooth jazz, Iranian pop and electro-Punjabi mixes. There’s a corner stocked with mats in case diners want to pray. And the people working are so sweet and calming.

There aren’t many Afghan restaurants in the Sacramento region, and the ones that do exist focus on kabobs and gyro-style sandwiches. The food at East Market & Restaurant, which opened last summer, feels distinctly homey. The dishes are simple, but the cooking is usually spot on.

Regardless of whether you order in or to go, you will receive a little bowl of shor nakhod, a traditional street snack of chickpeas and boiled potato slivers in a bright green cilantro chutney. It’s refreshing, with a subtle burn.

If you’re with a group, definitely order the bolani ($9.99), described on the menu as an “Afghan calzone.” It’s more like a thin, crispy, stuffed flatbread—imagine two Chinese scallion pancakes and spiced potatoes forming a pan-fried sandwich, with chutney and yogurt for dipping.

The portion is large, meant for sharing. Same with the manto ($10.99) and aashak ($9.99), two versions of Afghan dumplings. I much prefer the aashak, delicate half-moons filled with scallions and topped with ground beef and garlic yogurt. Yellow split peas weigh down the beef-filled manto.

Most options, however, feature perfectly fluffy basmati rice, such as Afghanistan’s national dish qabili palaw ($11.99). Though the basmati looks brown, it’s actually white rice cooked in broth, then heaped over a sizable braised lamb shank. The meat is rich and tender, and plump raisins and sweetened carrots add dimension.

The kofta challow ($9.99) is less successful, solely because its two hockey puck-sized meatballs are too dry. You can get a similar flavor from the borani badejan ($6.99), though. I know, eggplant isn’t really a substitute for ground beef, but it’s stewed in a similar combo of tomatoes, onions and spices. The resulting puree works well spooned over rice or spread across bread, and it serves as a decent vegetarian main course on a menu severely lacking in vegetarian options, especially considering how much of Afghanistan’s population is vegetarian.

Then, there are the kabobs ($9.99-$13.99), which come with grilled chicken, beef or lamb beside a mountain of rice, a cucumber-tomato salad and endless rectangles of chewy, warm Afghan flatbread. Sure, other Afghan restaurants in the area focus on kabobs, but East Market’s boast a seasoned, charred crust on tender, juicy meats. In other words, totally up to snuff.

You may have to wait a bit for your meal. You may have to ask for things that may seem obvious, like plates for sharing or utensils. And you may be utterly confused at times, like when you have walk to the market to pay your restaurant bill. Smile. Be patient. The chutney will beckon you back.