In a dining mecca like Chicago, I could easily go weeks without every really having "American" food. Why would I settle for a plain ol' cheeseburger (though I do obsessively crave them, in all their juicy glory, for late night shove-down material) when I could throw back Italian, Mexican, Greek, Spanish, Irish, German, Latin, Turkish, Guatemalan or my newly anointed favorite, vegetarian-friendly Afghan?
I guess I knew that Afghan food existed somewhere out there, but I'd never really tried it until a friend convinced me I needed to partake in the baked pies at a Georgian bakery on Devon. He claimed they were out-of-this-world and I was just steps away from the front door when I saw the menu, complete with color photos, posted on the door of the Afghan Restaurant. Just like that, Georgian bakery out, Afghan Restaurant in. Sorry to letcha know, but last minute run-ins and random, uncalculated mishaps are this chica's means of survival.
And, lucky, lucky me. The place was bright, spotless and dead empty (just the way I like it), save for a lone Afghan family finishing up their platters of grilled kebabs and piles of fluffy basmati rice. Hell, forget the menu, I was sold on the visual remains of those table scraps. It's funny when you go into authentic, ethnic joints in the city, because there's always the dead stare, you know? Like, they're wondering "who are you and what are you doing here in my home?" I never give a damn, though and my usual MO is to get all wild-eyed and crazed about the menu, hoping they'll accept me and my heathen cohorts (all whom are just as frantic about food as I am) as just humble folks who happen to adore good food.
The colorful menu was loaded with veggie friendly options, but the one that stood out the most was picturesque No. 12, an eggplant dish called Borani Badinjan Chalow. A simple dish, it came with soup, salad, bread and a platter full of basmati rice, all for a mere $7.95; right up my ever starving, credit card abusing belly's alley. Hands down, this turned out to be one of the most perfect vegetarian meals I'd ever had.
The fresh, melt-in-your-mouth eggplant had been roasted for hours and was covered with a slightly spicy tomato sauce, loaded with garlic and chili oil. The masterful chef (who, crazily enough, looks like Omar Sharif in an apron) then drizzled it with a chilled yogurt mixture, blasting of garlic and fresh chopped parsley. The mix between the hot and the cold, with some of the chewy, featherlike basmati rice tossed in, was complete and utter heaven.
The breathtaking surprise was in the soup, though. A piping hot, curry studded green lentil concoction, there were ladybug-size pasta pieces floating throughout…and with a hit of the hot pepper pesto and with a sop of the crudely cut, perfectly grilled Kabul bread (straight from Lon's Bakery)…forget about it. Dunk after dunk of bread, pile after pile of buttery rice and smile after nervous smile from the staff makes this place primo for veggie lovers on the hunt for paradise. Oh really, Omar, got a smile or two in ya? Good to know, my friend, good to know.
The Final Rave: After an initial "uh-oh, I hope this doesn't taste like flan" grimace when I spooned deep into their firny, my taste buds blew up upon first swallow of this heart achingly sweet Afghan pudding. The pistachio sprinkles on top are worth the buck-ninety-five alone.
KEEP IT GOING:
Read It: half.com
Check out my favorite book site and try all this Afghan chaos at home. Yep, for less than a ten spot, you too can own Afghan Food & Cookery tome, the best selling Afghan cookbook for five years running.
Eat It: Kabul House
The Afghan food definitely rocks, but sorry guys, guess you'll have to ditch the "we're the only Afghan restaurant in Chicago claim." That's gotta really blow.
Drink It: Afghan Monkey
Summer's coming, baby and this insanely potent fruit and cream cocktail makes for lotsa lazy days on the beach. Well hell, forget summer, I guess I could go for one right now.
Get Crazy with It: DePaul University Art Museum
The fragile life of Afghanistan is tragically real and is beautifully documented by world-renowned photojournalist Zalmai Ahad. The art exhibition is only showcasing 'til March 20, so check it out now; make sure to call first though, this traveling exhibition seems to be hop scotching all over Chicago.