750 Sixth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
Authentic Afghan cuisine is hard to find. For several years, Chopahn restaurant was an overlooked storefront in a huge mall up near UTC. "When we were in the Renaissance Towne Center, people often drove right by us and missed us," says chef-owner Haider Hussainy. After a two-year hiatus to find a more attractive location, Chopahn reopened in the Gaslamp -- but as of this writing, it doesn't yet have an overhead sign. At our first visit, we nearly missed it: The setting sun was in our eyes, and a herd of elephantine SUVs was parked in front, obscuring our view. Only when we crossed the street did we espy the patio tables and eye-catching planters filled with flowers.
It was worth the hunt, because good Afghan cooking is a delight -- and Chopahn's is very good, indeed. Hussainy's rugged, mountainous country borders on India, Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and several lesser-known "-stans." It shares some of the best elements of all these cuisines. If you love kebabs, you'll be thrilled with Chopahn's, which features fine, hand-cut meat cooked to order and enriched by a gentle herbal marinade. If you enjoy Indian spices and Persian stews, you'll find close equivalents. If you're mad for garlicky Uzbek yogurt sauce -- well, you can have that too.
As you enter, you walk across two handsome Afghan rugs in the vibrant reds and compelling designs of Oriental tribal carpets. The dining room is painted a light mustard, with arches cut into the walls; the banister of a stairway to an upstairs banquet room is sawed in zigzags. Rhythmic Afghan music plays on the sound system -- sometimes exotic, sometimes weirdly similar to Appalachian bluegrass jams. (It's mountain music either way.)
Every appetizer on the menu is worth trying. My favorite (perhaps because it was new to me) was bulanee, a thin turnover of airy, fragile dough, filled with an intense purée of leeks, spring onions, herbs, and a touch of hot pepper. (There's also a ground beef and potato version called bulanee katchalu. ) Aushak is probably Afghanistan's best-known dish, consisting of large, thin-skinned, ravioli-like dumplings with a similar leek filling, topped with garlic-spiked yogurt and a spicy ground-beef sauce. (This is a dish that lovers of Uzbek cuisine will immediately recognize as a close variation of chuckvara, the national dish.) Mantu, from the north of the country (near the Uzbek border), are aushak in reverse -- the meat's in the filling, and the topping is yogurt sauce and vegetables. Both aushak and mantu are also available as entrées.
From the Indian-influenced side of the cuisine, sambosas are essentially double-size samosas, with a ground-beef and puréed chickpea filling spiked with fresh-ground coriander seed. Pakawra resemble swollen Indian pakoras -- in rounds the size of English muffins, a puffy fried batter encloses tender eggplant or potatoes and is served piping hot before it has a chance to deflate. The eggplant version was my partner's favorite appetizer. The toppings are yogurt sauce and a mildly seasoned meat sauce.
Along with your appetizers you'll receive a basket of house-baked naan, a flatbread resembling Italian focaccia, baked in a regular oven. (In the homeland, it's typically made in a tandoor oven.) Adding to the flavors are a ramekin of extra yogurt sauce and another containing coriander "chutney." Make no mistake, this is not a sweet chutney but the house hot sauce, a purée of cilantro, garlic, and Serrano chiles. I told my partner, "Wow, this tastes like one of those homemade peppa sauces from Trinidad." Thinking that I meant the faded bottled sauces we brought back five years ago, he swiped his bread through it and took a big bite. With my mouth full of bulanee, I couldn't yell, "Watch out!" Eyes tearing and ears fuming, he promptly downed half a glass of beer (which, oddly enough, was Pacifico, not Taj Mahal or Kingfisher -- his favorite Indian imports aren't offered here). The soothing yogurt proved the key to his recovery.
Among the three salads, the modestly named "house salad" is the one that patrons of the UTC Chopahn most savored. It includes romaine, shredded carrots and red cabbage, cucumber, and tomatoes (seriously unripe that night) in a light yogurt-mustard dressing. The flavor is big and bright but weightless.
There are endless variations on kebabs. In Afghani languages, "kebabs" means meat dry-cooked, grilled, or roasted, whole or in chunks. It needn't be skewered. Many selections are grilled whole -- no hole through the center. Chopahn serves seven types of kebabs, four of which highlight different cuts of lamb. (The rest are beef, chicken, and veal.) Given Afghanistan's geography, I chose ovine over bovine -- the lamb selections are presumably the most authentic. A steep and chilly country where artisans weave prized Oriental rugs must have a lot of thick-wooled sheep, but no corn-fed Omaha cows.
Chopahn, the dish for which the restaurant is named, here refers to grilled lamb loin chops. (At the famed Helmand restaurants in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. -- owned by the family of the president of Afghanistan -- the word "chopahn" applies to rack of lamb. But Afghanistan has many languages.) The chops have been marinated in saffron, garlic, onion, and white-wine vinegar, and they're savory, tender mouthfuls. They come with challaw, which is buttery steamed basmati rice. Alongside is an array of char-marked grilled tomato halves, zucchini, green pepper, and eggplant. The grill here employs lava rocks, lending the meats a wood-smoky, campfire flavor similar to that of the native charcoal-grilling.
The most lavish entrée is shinwari kabob, a roast rack of tender lamb ribs with a pistachio crust. We ordered it rare, and the rigorously trimmed meat was juicy and tender. Its roasted garlic and reduced lamb-stock gravy was thick, dark, and salty, and a tad burned that night. The meat comes with pallaw, basmati rice that's browned and seasoned by sautéing in a touch of oil (like Chinese fried rice), plus the same grilled vegetables as those served with the chopahn.
Regular lamb kebabs (kebab-e-gousfand), skewered chunks, are made from the well-trimmed leg, same as most Greek (and Armenian, Persian, Turkish, etc.) shish kebabs, and they benefit from the same marinade as the chopahn. Sautéed lamb shows up in karai, where it mingles with onion, tomatoes, and green peppers, served over basmati rice. (There's also a beef version, korma challow. ) If you prefer long-stewed lamb, the shanks go into a dish called quabili pallaw, rice with carrots and raisins. In addition, there are several stews, with a choice of eggplant, spinach, or cauliflower as the costarring vegetable.
But it's not an all-mammal menu of main courses. Although Afghanistan has no seacoast, it has plenty of lakes and rivers laden with trout and other freshwater fish. A form of freshwater salmon is called "red fish" in translation. It's represented on the menu as mahie (which means simply "fish" and is pronounced like mahi-mahi, minus one mahi). This is farm-raised Atlantic salmon, grilled to order -- precisely to our order of "moist." It's served on a bed of sabsi, baby-spinach stew, with chopped tomatoes, garlic, and an olive oil-based dill sauce, plus the grilled veggie array of the kabobs. Another meat alternative is samarooq challaw, skinless chicken breast sautéed with onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, and green bell peppers over well-buttered basmati. It's among the owner's favorites and one of the waiter's pick hits, but to me, it's still just chicken breast.
Vegetable side dishes shouldn't be missed, even if there are already veggies on the plate. (Served with challow, these dishes make up the vegetarian entrées.) The must-try choice is kadu, pumpkin cooked meltingly tender in a sweet syrup and topped with yogurt and meat sauce. (Right now, with pumpkin seasonally unavailable, it's made with nutty butternut squash.) I was delighted as well with gulpi, cauliflower cooked with ginger, tomatoes, and onions. It's similar to Indian cuisine, but the flavors are distinct, rather than a currylike blend. You can appreciate the individual ingredients.
The wine list is appropriate and generally affordable, dominated by California bottlings but with some French and Italian choices. Mr. Hussainy likes Chardonnay with the appetizers and Pinot Noir with lamb dishes. I do wish there were more choices by the glass -- but that's a constant wherever I dine.
There are two desserts. The house-made baklava is less gooey than most, with top and bottom layers of filo sandwiching at least three inches of ground walnuts, all lightly dressed in sugar syrup. The other choice is firni, a creamy rice pudding that I like a lot but was too full to try.
Even if you don't want to venture into the "deep ethnic" side of the menu, go for the kebabs. No insult to other nations' cuisines, but in these dishes, Afghanistan is a world leader and Chopahn is a world-beater.
ABOUT THE CHEF-OWNER
Haider Hussainy was born in Kabul, then the cosmopolitan capital city of Afghanistan. He came to San Diego in 1974 to study for a degree in business administration at San Diego State and was here when his homeland was overrun by the Soviet Union. As much as he missed it, he couldn't go home again. In fact, it was a good time not to be home, and he remained in California through the Soviet era and the subsequent Taliban regime.
He was already engaged in cooking. "When I was little, I watched my mom. I loved to cook, and I learned it that way. I've cooked for all my life, since I was about 12 or 15. Now I remember how my mom cooked things, and I put them on the menu. That's why I got into the restaurant business."
As a student, Hussainy supported himself by working nights as a waiter at the Hyatt -- a gig that ended up lasting nearly 25 years, with increasing responsibilities. "When I finished my schooling," he says, "I told my wife, 'I've finished my degree but I'm not going to work in business, I'm going to open my own restaurant.'" Both he and his wife, a corporate manager, saved up their money to fulfill the dream. That was the first incarnation of Chopahn, opened in 1998 in the Renaissance Towne Center mall at UTC. "After about four years I sold that restaurant and spent two years tending to my family and looking for a better area to reopen in," he says. "I wanted to find some nice location in the Gaslamp area. I found this place, and it took me one year to rebuild it, with all the permits and engineering."
His cooking is remarkably wholesome, with everything made from scratch. "It's healthy food," he says. "I want to serve everything fresh." He makes the yogurt sauces with a blend of whole-milk and low-fat yogurts to get the right consistency. "I don't want to make it too heavy, I want a balance. Once in a while I make yogurt from scratch, but it takes too much of my time." Although he uses standard restaurant suppliers rather than "elite" food purveyors, he buys only never-frozen meat and poultry (in fact, the restaurant has no freezer). He cuts the meat himself, trimming off all visible fat. For the vegetables, "I shop all around, looking for the freshest vegetables. When the wholesaler sends me vegetables, I look them over, and if they're not fresh I send them back. If I see something nice at the farmer's market, I buy that."
I asked him what Afghan cuisine has in common with neighboring India and what differs between them. "Afghan cooking shares the same spices with Indian and Pakistani cooking, as well as some of the spices that Persian people use. The difference is that Indian food uses a lot of spices all at once and makes them overpowering. Our cuisine, you can taste everything separately. You know exactly what you're tasting -- the cinnamon, the cumin, the coriander. We like a lot of spices, but we don't like them all blended together. We want to enjoy every flavor in what we're eating."