Afghan Ambassadors

His one piece of advice to his son: “Don’t start a restaurant. You’ll never be able to relax.”

Zawzaw, the Burmese chef, with Khaled Waleh, the Afghan owner
  • Zawzaw, the Burmese chef, with Khaled Waleh, the Afghan owner

Zia Gourmet Pizza

3311 Adams Avenue, Normal Heights

“A pizza,” says Khaled Waleh, “is a wrap, unwrapped. Rolled out flat…”

He looks at me to see if I get it.

“With a pizza, you can see what you’re eating. It sits on top. With a wrap, all the food is concealed. And I believe eating is about seeing, the colors, the textures, as well as the smell and taste. That was the insight I had.”

Khaled’s explaining how come he gave up his wraps restaurant, Zia Tropical Grill, which he started in the College Area in late 1999, featuring Afghan-Indian chutneys. Lordy. How delish was his giant peach wrap with chicken strips, grilled onions, potatoes, and luscious peach chutney, even if all that good stuff was rolled up out of view?

Now I find him up here in Normal Heights with a pizzeria called Zia Gourmet Pizza. He’s been open here for more than four years. For a while, he ran both places, but he closed the Tropical Grill three years ago.

It was past 9:00 p.m. when I walked in; they were getting ready to close. But Khaled makes time for me. We sit at the table nearest the kitchen with a couple of regulars, Charles and Daaiyah. Near the front, where lots of artwork hangs on the walls — some of it painted by Khaled — tables are pushed together so a group of college students can have themselves a pizza party. Back in the kitchen, Somiyah, Khaled’s younger sister, is clearing up, and Zawzaw, the Burmese pizza chef, is baking his last pizza of the day.

“So I realized,” Khaled continues, “that if all the food in a wrap is concealed, half the pleasure is gone.”

Trust Khaled to intellectualize pizzas. The guy’s an artist as well as a UCSD grad (in visual arts) and the son of Zia Sahebzada, a police chief from Afghanistan who brought his family here after a hair-raising escape and started his own eatery, Zia’s Afghan Cafe up on 30th. It became famous among North Parkians for introducing modestly priced but interesting Afghan vegetarian food.

His one piece of advice to his son: “Don’t start a restaurant. You’ll never be able to relax.”

But what son follows his father’s advice?

Khaled went ahead and established Zia. He used the family name, because “Zia” is associated in San Diego’s collective brain with good Afghan chow. But he soon changed it, to avoid confusion. It became Zia Tropical Grill.

“Problem was, everyone went on calling it Cafe Zia,” he says.

Whatever, the main thing I remember is those chutneys. Mango chutney, papaya, apple, peach…the guy practically pioneered Indian chutneys in ’Diego.

“The problem was, you couldn’t see these beautiful chutneys,” he says. “Or the veggies and fruits. They were all wrapped up inside flour tortillas.”

So, now, here, he unwraps his wraps — and calls them pizza.

They’re proper pizzas, of course, with bits of Afghanistan sprinkled in. “None of them is pure Afghani,” Khaled says, “but they have tastes and combinations that are ambassadors from home.

Right now, I’m chomping on a slice of potato pizza: seasoned baked potato chunks with feta cheese, scallions, fresh-minced garlic, light cream cheese, red sauce, and mozzarella. It’s $3 a slice. Tastes yummy. Khaled says they season and bake the red-skinned potatoes before they add them to the pizza. Love the crunchy crust.

Khaled, who was only eight when he fled from Kabul with his family, hiding in the secret opium compartments of a smuggler’s truck, remembers more of Germany, where they first went, than Afghanistan. But he wants to continue his dad’s mission of bringing the feeling of his home country to the rest of us, through the taste buds.

Another slice Khaled recommended comes. This time it’s a New Yorker ($3). Turkey pastrami, basil, pepperoncini, light cream cheese, and scallions. Wow. Tastes rich, and a little sweet.

I’m pretty much full already. Just washing down mouthfuls with a bottle of Coke. Then Khaled starts talking about his eggplant pizza. “It’s the most Afghan of them all,” he says. “Eggplant is one of our main foods, and so is the Indian-style raita [salty yogurt] we put in. And the cranberries.”

Cranberries and yogurt in a pizza? Definitely ambassadors from South Asia.

What the heck. I order a slice ($3.50). I bite in. Squishy eggplant, scallions, tomato, those cranberries, red sauce, mozzarella, and splotches of savory yogurt sauce. The yogurt-cranberry-eggplant combo makes you think of Persia, Pakistan, India. And guess what?

I have another. This time it’s a sweet one — yeah, sweet pizza. Called the Cinnamon Pear ($3.50). It’s juicy like a tart, with a white crust (nice and flaky, almost as crumbly as a croissant), cinnamon-pear sauce, caramelized pears, walnuts (nice touch), mascarpone cheese, a light cream cheese, and white sesame seeds sprinkled across the top. Pretty cool. And, oh, the flavors.

“The thing is, we aren’t quick, like those people with extra-hot ovens, where they cook the pizza in a minute and a half,” says Khaled. “That wouldn’t work with all the stuff we put on top. We slow-cook at 400 degrees. The flavors are better. So that means 20–25 minutes from when you order.”

For a whole pizza, that is. Slices come quicker.

When I first came in, Khaled was in the back, laying arty tilework (his own designs) in an area that he says is going to become a lounge. In the middle of the dusty room, big semicircular booths — waiting to be placed — make a maze. “We’re getting a beer-and-wine license, so this will be a cool spot to hang out, have little celebrations,” he says.

A far cry from his daddy’s beloved-but-tiny place, back in the day.

“What does he think about your pizzas, what you’re doing here?” I ask.

“Actually,” says Khaled, “he has returned to Afghanistan to the family farm in Parwan province, north of Kabul. It’s not rich — no opium poppies! — but he always had one foot there. Even though his family’s here now, his history is there. The grandparents, and their parents, are buried on the farm. So he’s gone. Six months, more, each year. We worry about kidnapping, but there are many like him, still nostalgic for their world over there. In spite of the war.” ■

The Place: Zia Gourmet Pizza, 3311 Adams Avenue, Normal Heights, 619-284-4320

Prices: Potato pizza, with feta cheese, $3 slice, $15.50 for 14-inch pie; New Yorker pizza (with turkey pastrami, basil, pepperoncini), $3 slice, $15.50 for 14-inch pie; Eggplant (with cranberries, savory yogurt), $3.50 slice, $19.50, 14-inch pie; Cinnamon Pear pizza (with caramelized pears), $28, for 14-inch size

Hours: 5:00–10:00 p.m., daily

Bus: 11

Nearest bus stop: Adams Avenue, at 33rd Street

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