May 23-29, 2007

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De Afghanistan Kabob House

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Licensed to grill: Aziz Omar mans the meat at De Afghanistan Kabob House.

Meat Mecca

Three Afghan kebab shops worth making a pilgrimage for

By Stett Holbrook

Memorial Day marks the beginning of summer and the unofficial start of the barbecue season. That means men who studiously avoid cooking all year long suddenly heed the atavistic call of a latent meat-grilling gene and fire up the barby.

Of course, when Americans say barbecue, most really mean grilling. Barbecue involves slow cooking with wood smoke over indirect heat for several hours. Grilling means turning on the propane grill, flicking the starter and poof! Throw the Costco tri tip on the grill and grab a cold beer. It's party time.

While back yard grilling is taken as a God-given American right, every weekend Weber wizard owes a debt to the nomads, soldiers and Bedouins of the Middle East who are the real grill masters. For them grilled meat was a meal of necessity. In a land like the Middle East where fuel was scarce, grilling small cubes of fast-cooking meat over open fires was an efficient and portable way to cook meat. According to Larousse Gastronomique, the technique is believed to have begun in Turkey (where the term shish kebab comes from) and spread throughout the Middle East and Balkans. But the origins may go back even further.

"It is said that shish bebab {sic} was born over the open-field fires of medieval Turkic soldiers, who used their swords to grill meat," says Clifford A. Wright in his book A Mediterranean Feast. "Given the obvious simplicity of spit-roasting meat over a fire, I suspect its genesis is earlier. There is iconographical evidence of Byzantine Greeks cooking shish kebabs. But surely the descriptions for skewering strips of meat for broiling in Homer's Odyssey must count for an early shish kebab."

The word kebab also enjoys a variety of spellings that include "kabob" and "kebob." I'm sticking with kebab.

The Afghan kebab shops of Fremont ought to be a pilgrimage for any self-professed grilling expert. In these meat meccas, the art of grilling meat over open flame is reduced to the fundamentals with delicious results. Marinated and deeply spiced chunks of beef, lamb and chicken are threaded onto flat, swordlike steel skewers and cooked over a fat-spattering fire set in a narrow, troughlike grill box. In this method there is no "grill" since the skewers serve as both grill and cooking utensil. The meat is grilled over charcoal briquettes or gas flame-heated lava rocks.

I stopped at three Afghan kebab restaurants for lunch recently to see how things were done. With its counter service and simple dining room, Ariana's Kabob House looks like a fast food restaurant and in a way is since half of the menu is given over to burgers, grilled cheese sandwiches and banana splits. But the other half of the menu is 100 percent Afghan and in addition to various kebabs includes Afghan standards like ashak (a kind of ravioli), qabili pallow (a lamb and rice dish) and sabzi challow (a rice, spinach and lamb dish).

But I was here for kebabs. The meat skewers here are intensely flavored and marinated with puréed onions, dried baby grapes and garlic. The tikkah kebab ($9.99) comes with big chunks of prime rib beef. The meat is wonderfully robust and big on garlic and salt. The meat is well crusted outside and squirty juicy inside. But because of the intense marinade, the kebab left me thirsty and my palate overloaded.

The Shami kebab ($8.99) is made of ground beef mixed with cilantro, garlic and moderately spicy chile pepper flakes. It's a spicier version of koobideh, a Persian ground meat kebab. It's a well-charred stick of meat that's even juicier than the tikkah kebab.

The kebabs are served atop slices of Afghan naan, big sheets of oval-shaped flat bread. It's also served with a lackluster, salsalike salad of purple onion, jalapeño and tomato.

Just a few blocks away, Zaytoon Steak and Kabab restaurant is the fanciest place I visited. Like a lot of Afghan restaurants in Fremont, the place books a lot of banquets and the heavy curtains, faux marble floors and white tablecloths make it feel like a banquet hall.

The kebabs are served with two great sauces on the side that the server just called "chutneys." But they were unlike any chutney I'd ever had. Rather than being sweet, they are spicy and loaded with garlic and vinegar. But in small doses the green and red sauces are great dabbed onto the meat and rolled into a little naan.

As for the kebabs, I tried the lamb rib chops ($14.95) and shish kebab ($11.95). The shish kebab was quite good, thick chunks of garlic-laced beef that was flavorful and almost tender enough to cut with a spoon. But for me the lamb chops were best. For lamb the flavor was quite mild but big on smoky, succulent juiciness. Leaving in the thin rib bones added extra flavor. The meat was beautifully blistered outside with a great, salty, garlicky crust that yielded to wonderfully tender meat inside. Owner Gul Beekzad said his kebabs are the best in the state. I can't vouch for that but I'd definitely put them in the top tier.

For atmosphere and the quality of the kebabs, my favorite was De Afghanistan Kabob House. The tiny, three-table storefront feels more like a den than a restaurant. A collage of yellowing photos of people and places in Afghanistan papers the walls. You sit so close to the grill you're almost looking over the cook's shoulders as he tends to the kebabs smoking and sputtering over the fire. And you might as well be cooking because the haze of grill smoke that hangs in the air will make your clothes smell like you did. Because it's so small, De Afghanistan does a brisk take-out business. During my visit there were always a few people waiting for their to-go orders.

Anyway, the kebabs are great. Even though De Afghanistan was my third stop in less than 90 minutes and I was nearing kebab overload, it was obvious these were special. The De Afghanistan chaplee kebab is a skewer of fat and juicy beef that's been marinated with green onions, cilantro, garlic and various spices. It's everything a kebab should be: tender and juicy inside and crusty, tangy outside. It's the restaurant's flagship kebab. All kebabs are served atop a large piece of naan that soaks up some of the drippings.

The chopan kebab ($12.50) is another winner, big, bone-in pieces of lamb that come off the grill just as tender and flavorful as the chaplee kebab.

It took a few days to recover from my kebab cruise, but I know I'll be back when I need a taste of the real thing.

Ariana's Kabob House

Address: 4342 Thornton Ave., Fremont

Phone: 510.792.6122

Hours: 11am-9pm Sun-Thu and 11am-10pm Fri-Sat

Cuisine: Afghan and American

Price Range: $8-$14.

Zaytoon Steak and Kabab

Address: 3701 Peralta Blvd., Fremont

Phone: 510.797.8484

Hours: 11am-9pm daily

Cuisine: Afghan

Price Range: $8-$14.

De Afghanistan Kabob House

Address: 37405 Fremont Blvd., Fremont

Phone: 510.745.9599

Hours: 11am-10pm Mon-Thu and 11am-11pm Fri-Sun

Cuisine: Afghan

Price Range: $9-$12.50.

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