Spicing up downtown

Kabul Kabob

729 J St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 444-9044

Until recently, the only Afghan restaurants I’d seen in the Sacramento area were all—or, I should say, both—in the suburbs. It was a pleasant surprise to hear about Kabul Kabob Cuisine, which opened not long ago deep in downtown, on J between Seventh and Eighth streets. It’s not that the location is so very pleasant; it’s definitely not a great stretch of downtown. But it’s nice to have access to mantoo, a tasty dumpling dish, that doesn’t require a long drive to Greenback Lane.

Kabul Kabob offers a lunch buffet in addition to full dinner service. I didn’t visit at lunch, but I’m sure it would be a good deal. I’m especially intrigued by the breakfast buffet—perhaps meant to capture a hotel-bound downtown audience?—from 6:30 a.m. to 10 a.m., according to the menu. It’s $4.99 for all you can eat, and I’m very curious about what might be available.

At dinner, at any rate, the restaurant belies its drab and unpromising location. Inside are cherry-red walls (a perfect match for my current favorite toenail shade, as it happens) and a lavishly decorated interior with many Afghan artifacts, such as ceremonial dress, on the walls. The owner obviously takes great pride in his heritage and cuisine. The menu sports a lengthy explanation of the fare, helpful for those who might be unfamiliar with many of the dishes.

Not surprisingly, given Afghanistan’s location, the culinary style lies somewhere between northern India and Iran, with some ties to the rest of the Middle East. Tandoor dishes like naan and kabobs are on offer, along with some curries and the aforementioned dumplings. An appetizer called borani bodajon, of spiced sautéed eggplant with tomatoes and yogurt sauce, bore a passing resemblance to baba ghanouj. It was chunkier, with a more intriguing texture and contrasts of flavor from the acidic hits of tomato and yogurt.

Yogurt’s tartness also figured in the drink we sampled, doghe, which our server—who was diffident at first but warmed up over the course of the meal—tried to help us learn to pronounce. We couldn’t really get the guttural sound of the “gh,” but the refreshing savory notes of mint and cucumber were more immediately accessible, though still unfamiliar as a drink for the Western palate. In any case, there aren’t many other options, such as beer or wine.

Our other appetizer was the mantoo, dumplings like delicate fresh-made ravioli with a filling of nearly equal parts of beef and onion, topped with a mélange of yogurt, split peas and a tomato sauce. We hesitated in ordering between these and the aushak—dumplings stuffed with leeks and then topped with the ground beef—and asked our server which we should try. Mantoo was her immediate verdict; we asked why, and she bluntly said, “They are better.” I can’t vouch for that, but they were very good indeed, deeply flavored and texturally interesting, with their contrast of silky wrappers, sauce and filling.

We had hoped to try borani kadoo also, a pumpkin appetizer, but it was unavailable, thanks to the season. We were given salads, however, without having ordered them. They seemed to be part of the deal, but they were rather negligible, with thick lettuce, a creamy dressing and not much to distinguish them.

The combination kabob seemed like a good bet for this eponymous restaurant, and it was. It included tender beef chunks, equally tender and unusually moist chicken, and shami—sizzling, spicy, juicy ground beef, well-spiced and oniony, with a faint tang. A lot of kabobs, especially in the Middle Eastern tradition, emerge from the kitchen rather dry and tough; these were neither, and they also were boldly seasoned. The beef was peppery, with a slow burn, and the chicken was flavorful as well, though subtler. The aromatic rice alongside was perfectly cooked.

More disappointing was the naan, which did not taste fresh but re-warmed. Rather than being tender, blistered and yeasty, like the naan in Indian restaurants, it was a thicker, more uniform, rather dull flatbread. Still, it was not bad for sopping up the richly tomatoey curry sauce of our chicken curry. I feared the curry would not be very interesting, but it was quite good; nice touches included chickpeas and fresh mint.

For dessert I had hoped to order house-made cheesecake, which the menu described as soaked in cream and cardamom syrup and topped with pistachios. It sounded heavenly, but alas, they were out, so instead we had a very thin rice pudding. It was aromatically spiced with some of the same flavors but was tooth-achingly sweet.

Though that ending wasn’t great, Kabul Kabob is, on the whole, offering delicious fare—particularly in its excellent kabobs. I hope more people will discover it (the restaurant was nearly empty on our visit) so this fresh spot can continue to add a new dimension to downtown.