110 E. Union St., Pasadena
Cross Street: South Arroyo Parkway
Imagine a plate of steamed beef ravioli topped with peas and carrots and yogurt and mint. The pasta has a luscious, sophisticated texture, and the yogurt and dried mint give it a wild tang.
This is an Afghan dish called mantu, and it's kind of Afghanistan in a nutshell, wild and elegant at the same time.
Just look around at Azeen's, a new Afghan restaurant in a quiet corner of Pasadena's Old Town. It's a subdued and tasteful place with talismans of the old country scattered here and there, such as a distinctive boat-shaped lute called a rebab. But down at the end of the room there's a big color photo of Afghanistan's national extreme sport, buzkashi ("goat grabbing"), which is more or less keep-away for grown-ups, played on galloping horses, using a goat carcass as the ball.
Just keep that in mind: Afghanistan, land of silken pasta and goat grabbing.
So why aren't we seeing more Afghan restaurants? After World War II Japanese restaurants started showing up around here. The first wave of Korean restaurants came after the Korean War, and Vietnamese places came after the Vietnam War. The war in Afghanistan hasn't yet had this effect, though Afghan cuisine is a fine one -- like Persian but heartier, like Indian with fewer spices, more enthusiastic about yogurt than either -- and the Afghans are proud of it. For years the family of Afghan president Hamid Karzai has been running restaurants in several U.S. cities.
There are plenty of Afghan places in San Diego and loads of them in Northern California, but in the Los Angeles area, not so many. Aside from Azeen's, I can think of only one in Claremont (with the misleading name Walter's) and two in Reseda. That's a paltry number, considering that a single Bay Area suburb, Fremont, has three of its own. It's about time we got an elegant Afghan showcase like Azeen's.
Azeen's serves mantu as either an appetizer or an entree. Another fine appetizer is bulanee, a sort of cousin of the samosa, only larger, flatter and crisper. The classic bulanee has a filling of Chinese leeks; Azeen's version uses a combination of leeks and green onions. It has the irresistible flavor of browned pastry and onions, and it's particularly good with a little yogurt (you also get a mint chutney, which is rather like English mint sauce). Another bulanee on this menu has a filling of potatoes and ground beef, making it even more like a samosa. It's savory but heavier than the leek bulanee.
If you want, you can actually get a rather Indian-like samosa with a filling of potatoes and chickpeas, and some nice, not so Indian-like pakoras (spelled pakawra here): breaded eggplant or potato slices with a bit of meat sauce and yogurt on top.
And then there's the beef-vegetable soup called aush, which could pass for an American noodle soup except for the dill and yogurt flavoring, and something with an edgy flavor like pickles. It's a substantial, savory bowl. "I could make a meal of it," a waiter told me, practically salivating.
One of the appetizers that also shows up as an entree is aushak, a sort of leek ravioli with a yogurt and meat sauce topping. Aushak is one of the most famous Afghan dishes, but these have less filling and sauce than I'd like. I'll take the mantu instead.
The rest of the menu consists of kebabs and pilafs. The chicken kebab is unusual -- big chunks of dense white meat -- and the lamb kebab (kabob-e gousfand) is downright smashing, made with remarkably delicious sweet, gamy lamb. There's an even fancier lamb kebab, kabob-e chupan, using diced lamb chops, but the regular kebab is excellent in itself.
The best pilafs (challaws) are gulpi (topped with beef stewed with cauliflower and cinnamon-ginger tomato sauce) and smarooq, where the topping is chicken stewed with mushrooms (samaruq in Afghan), tomatoes, bell peppers and an undeclared touch of saffron.
Afghanistan's most famous pilaf, qabili, is generously covered with raisins and grated carrot but it is less interesting. The stewed eggplant (badenjan) and mild chile (korma) sauces are on the plain side. All these toppings except smarooq are available in meatless versions.
For dessert, there's nothing but walnut baklava (baghlava), a syrup-soaked Indian-style fritter (jelabi) fried in a neat spiral and firni, a mild cornstarch pudding with almonds, pistachios and a dash of rosewater.
Unless you want another plate of mantu. I know I do.
-- Charles Perry
Times Staff Writer
May 19, 2004
Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; daily, 5:30-9:30 p.m.
Posted 10/14/2004 7:04 PM Updated 10/14/2004 9:40 PM
Here's what restaurant critics are saying about dining in their regions:
Azeen's Afghani Restaurant, 110 E. Union St., Pasadena, 626-683-3310; Afghan: "Imagine a plate of steamed beef ravioli topped with peas and carrots and yogurt and mint. The pasta has a luscious, sophisticated texture, and the yogurt and dried mint give it a wild tang. This is an Afghan dish called mantu, and it's kind of Afghanistan in a nutshell, wild and elegant at the same time. ... Another fine appetizer is bulanee, a sort of cousin of the samosa, only larger, flatter and crisper. The classic bulanee has a filling of Chinese leeks; Azeen's version uses a combination of leeks and green onions. It has the irresistible flavor of browned pastry and onions, and it's particularly good with a little yogurt (you also get a mint chutney, which is rather like English mint sauce). ... The rest of the menu consists of kebabs and pilafs (palaw). The chicken kebab is unusual — big chunks of dense white meat — and the lamb kebab (kabob-e gousfand) is downright smashing, made with remarkably delicious sweet, gamy lamb. There's an even fancier lamb kebab, kabob-e chupan, using diced lamb chops, but the regular kebab is excellent in itself." Entrees: $11.90-$19.90.
— Charles Perry, Los Angeles Times
Article Published: Friday, March 26, 2004 - 2:47:31 PM PST
The meaning and taste of Afghan cuisine
Meandering about the Internet, looking for a clear definition of Afghan cuisine, I kept coming across descriptions of it as being a cross between Iranian and Indian cooking, which is a bit like describing American cuisine as a cross between Canadian and Mexican.
Though the cooking of Afghanistan has elements of the foods of its neighbors (food, as we know, does not have borders), Afghan cuisine is, well, Afghan cuisine. It is a thing unto itself. And nowhere is it done better in Southern California than at a stylish new restaurant on placid Union Street in Old Pasadena called Azeen's.
I'd like to say that Azeen's has been the toast of the town since it opened. That local foodies have been flocking to its doors. But so far, it seems to be regarded with curiosity; in a neighborhood where Italian cooking is dominant, and where sushi and Thai are the exotica of the moment, Afghan chow has been met with polite puzzlement. As an in-law of mine, notorious for her fear of eating anything she hasn't eaten before put it, "I don't know what it is, so I don't know if I'll like it.''
So, here's what it is, in a rather flavorful nutshell: The cooking of Afghanistan, as presented at Azeen's, is a wonderland of things fried, things steamed and things charbroiled, all served with rice so good, it makes me wonder what the heck that stuff called ``rice'' I've been eating for so many years really is.
As is so true in the cuisines of the Middle East, the appetizers alone make for a very satisfying meal; it's a pity they don't offer a combination mezze of many of them. Consider, for instance, the dish called aushak, a substantial dumpling filled with chopped leeks and scallions, topped with the homemade yogurt that appears all over the menu and a substantial meat sauce, sprinkled with enough mint to make it taste like a meaty mint julep. Or perhaps the mantu, a steamed dumpling in which the meat sauce moves from sauce to filling, and the topping is yogurt with long cooked vegetables. Pakawra-e-badenjan is a distant cousin of India's onion bhajee … battered eggplant, deepfried to crispness, then topped with yogurt and meat sauce. Sambosa (as in the Indian samosa) is a fried pastry jammed with beef and garbanzos.
When it comes to the entrees, rice comes in two variations … pallaw, which is ``seasoned and browned,'' and challaw, which is ``seasoned white.'' They're both remarkable … rice cooked so that every grain is distinct, separate, uniquely wonderful. The rices come, variously, with kabobs and with stews. Of the former, it's hard to resist the combination of chicken (kabob-e-murgh) and lamb (kabob-e-gousfand); of the latter, sabsi challaw is lamb cooked with spinach and garlic, while gulpi challaw is beef with cauliflower, ginger and tomatoes.
There are plenty of vegetarian options as well … the butternut squash topped with yogurt is pretty great. Meals are served with an Afghan bread that has a crunchy, corrugated texture, served with an intense green sauce, and a better-than-expected salad, in a setting of white tablecloths and candles, with ornate columns and wall hangings.
The restaurant sits on an odd block - there's nothing much nearby, despite its location in the heart of Old Pasadena. Like the nearby Tibet-Nepal House, Azeen's Afghan is an important addition to the local scene. It gives us some texture we lack; it's another tasty ingredient in the pot.
Azeen's Afghani Restaurant 3 stars
110 E. Union St., Old Pasadena, (626) 683-3310
Lunch, Monday through Friday; dinner, everyday.
A superb destination for highly authentic, modestly upscale Afghan dining, a chance to sample rarely encountered dishes with exotic names like aushak, mantu, bulanee, kadu and gulpi, though beyond the wonderful Khyber Pass names, the dishes lean towards many kabobs served with delicious rice.
About $15 per person.