It isn’t exactly the most beautiful of places. The street is empty and parking easy to find (and free). The displays in the shop windows are faded and I wonder whether they really do show movies in the dilapidated theater and who would go see them? But it’s not the movie theater we’ve come to visit, it’s the shop next door where we hear the man rattling off something to a customer in a language I can’t understand and the smell of spices from the kebabs cooking washes over us. We’ve come to De Afghanan Kebab House in Fremont.
With only three or four small round tables (covered in glass, business cards and event advertisements slid underneath), a seat inside can be hard to come by. Most guests prefer to take their orders home with them. We decide to eat in, though, and it proves to be a feast for our senses: heat emanates throughout the matchbox-sized restaurant from the open flame where the kebabs cooks, nice on a cool October day. The photographs covering the wall–all of Afghan people or places–pull me past the Afghanistan of the news and make me wonder how many people in Afghanistan were eating kebabs at this very moment and did their mothers and grandmothers hand down coveted recipes for seasoning the kebabs? I am certain there must be some secret recipe behind the kebabs in this restaurant. I’d had them once before and they were the best kebabs I had ever had. Craning my head around the counter, I peek at the owner grilling the beef, lamb and chicken kebabs over the flame. An elbow away, a woman prepares massive bolani for the griddle. The thin pan bread is stuffed with seasoned mixtures of potatoes or leeks and then fried on the griddle.
Twenty minutes after we order our food, the owner brings us a bowl heaping with yogurt and squeeze-bottles of mint-cilantro chutney and red chile chutney. Then he proudly presents us with a large platter with of bolani fresh from the griddle and sliced into manageable pieces. The bolani is huge — easily the size of a large pizza! And it is only our appetizer. We tear off pieces of the hot bolani and dip it in the yogurt and chutneys. Between sips of Coke (you need soda with spicy food!) and blowing on the hot bolani, I savor the crisp exterior of the bread and the steaming mashed-potato filling flecked with chili flakes.
A few minutes after our bolani arrived, we scoot our Cokes and bottles of chutney to the side of the table to make room for our kebab plates. We ordered two kebab plates for three people, but we will still go home with leftovers. Generous portions of rice, Afghan bread, a potato-and-chickpea salad and a salad of tomatoes, red onions and cilantro accompany the kebabs. Once again, I am amazed by the incredible tenderness of the meat and delicious seasoning on the kebabs. Could such a small, grungy restaurant really make such wonderful kebabs? As we pay for our meal and shuffle past the other customers standing in the doorway, waiting to order their meals or pick up an order to take home to their families, I know the answer. De Afghanan Kabaob House makes the best kebabs I’ve ever had, and judging by the flock of people waiting patiently for their kebabs, I know I’m not the only one simulataneously marveling at the apparent squalor of the restaurant and the utter deliciousness of the hot bolani and tender kebabs. But the grunge isn’t enough to keep these people away, and it’s not going to keep me from coming back for another kebab either.