106 Chestnut Street
Old City
(215) 922-3676

134 Chestnut Street
Old City
(215) 922-1535

Land-locked Afghanistan is surrounded by Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. The country has emerged into rubble from unending wars and fundamentalist forlorn blight. Its new President, Hamid Karzai recently spoke to a joint session of Congress where he was honored, and is celebrating the 4th of July in Philadelphia (Hightaxestan).

The President would delight in the "home-cooking" delicacies at both Kabul and Ariana.

Kabul is celebrating its fourteenth birthday this summer. Ariana (the ancient name for the kingdom) began in November 2000 when Kabul’s partners split.

Both restaurants are inelegant, with minor variations in décor. Kabul is decidedly dim, candle-lit by red glass-domed lamps; Ariana is cheery, brightened by less recessed lighting and lime-green walls. Each restaurant has Afghan pocketbooks, hats, dresses, tunics, blouses and a picture or two hanging from side walls. Kabul is wide with a mural of camels at its far end. Ariana is narrow with a dining nest in its front bay window for patrons who like to eat on a platform with their legs crossed underneath them. Brass ornaments, oriental rugs, and pillows are omnipresent at both eateries.

I’ve never met anyone who prefers the cooking at either shebang over the other, and can explain why coherently. The appetizers, side dishes, main dishes, drinks and desserts are virtually identical. Service at both is courteous, careful and pleasant. The spices used are concurrent; the amount of time (ten hours or more) for marinating chunks of lamb, chicken or ground beef are on all fours. Both restaurants often offer the same style "20% off coupon" on respective websites. Both are BYOB. Both are inexpensively but complacently excellent.

Each might and should try to make a more singular mark upon your inquisitive palate. Consistency and dependability obviously bring patrons with clearly defined expectations. The best is that you’ll never be culinarily disappointed at either; the worst is that you won’t be soundly, serendipitously seduced to return to either. Frankly, sometimes you’ll walk into one thinking you’re in the other. Ergo, the need for coupons.

You’re not working too hard if you see "PALAW" on the menu. It has nothing to do with jurisdiction or choice of laws. PALAW advises that your platter shall be loaded with brown-colored (usually with cumin and cinnamon) white rice. CHALAW, on the other hand, portends the arrival of bountiful al dente basmati rice, perfectly pampered.

Never miss "Buranee" ($2.75) eggplant (Badenjan) or pumpkin (Kadu). The vegetables are sautéed to an opaque cake, just about caramelized, and topped with ground meat sauce and mouth-puckering yogurt. The "pumpkin" (in the summer) is actually butternut squash, but the herbs have deepened its look and feel to mimicry. The eggplant is almost roseate, gently numinous on the tongue.

Always order Aashak ($2.95) for steamed scallion-engorged dumplings proudly wearing meat sauce, yogurt and sprinkles of mint. The slippery skins heatedly skip in a split second across your mouth as if the scallions were late for court. "Combinations" of these appetizers, including "Sambosa" (chick peas and potato), or "Bulanee" (potato and onion turnover) can be ordered for the table, most economically.

Don’t forget the hot and sour Aehar pickles called Turshie ($2.75). Mixed bits of carrots, cabbage, cauliflower and pickles cause your salivary glands to silently scream. Please never forget the old Afghan adage: "NEVER LET ANYONE BUT YOUR SPOUSE BITE YOUR TURSHIE."

Main dishes revolve around "Kababs", saffron infused rice, toppings of crushed almonds, pistachios, carrot strips, and candied orange zest soaked in rosewater, tomatoes, lentils, garlic and vegetables redolent of Afghan spices. Nothing is heatedly peppery or chili-hot.
I succumb to the lamb-cubed entrées whose meat is rendered delicate by immured marination. Covered lamb, at the bottom of rice (Norenge, $12.25), or accompanied by green beans (Facilliya $10.75), the morsels and/or chops are succulent to a fault. There is an unexpected slight kick of an aftertaste which is memorable, but subtle. Chicken chunks or oblong meat patties are interchangeable, for the less than sheepish.

Wipe the plate clean with golden slices of premises-prepared Afghan bread.

Finalize with Firnee ($2.50), a snow white vanilla pudding, firm, chilled to turgidity, and spiked with pistachios and almonds. It’s a most happy ending with Afghan green tea laced with lime and cardamom.

These two authentically oriented special restaurants have to stop watching each other, emulating each other and colliding with coinciding cuisine concoctions. There must be more than one way to knit an Afghan… meal.


Copyright 2004 Richard Max Bockol, Esq. Back