Abdul Qazi opened his Afghan restaurant Kabul House on September 14, 2001--what might seem like bad timing for any restaurant to debut. A little more than a year later, business is so good that he's about to open a second location.
A teacher who left Kabul in 1979, during the Soviet invasion, Qazi had by 1985 made his way through Europe and Canada to the Chicago area. In 1995 he found himself tired of the various retail jobs he'd been working and decided to open his own business. With no previous restaurant experience, he bought a pizzeria on Main Street in Evanston. Over time he introduced some of the Afghan dishes he'd cooked for friends. His menu caught on, and soon the double storefront was split between La Rosa Pizzeria and Afghan Fine Cuisine.
In mid-2001, Qazi decided to expand. He thought his growing customer base could support a larger operation, and he wanted to be able to offer more convenient parking. He found a space on Dempster in Skokie that had previously been occupied by a Thai restaurant serving kosher food. As soon as he signed his new lease, Qazi posted a notice on the door of his Evanston place announcing the move, then spent three weeks fixing up his new digs.
He painted and decorated, hanging traditional textiles--rugs, woven pillow covers, embroidered vests, and an ornate child's dress--on the walls alongside pictures of Afghanistan. He spruced up nooks with tiled roofs in the back of the restaurant for diners seeking privacy. He put white cloths and fresh flowers on the tables, creating a slightly more upscale feel than he'd offered on Main Street. Then he opened for business.
That month restaurants everywhere were suffering from post-9/11 fallout. Making matters more uncertain, the local Afghan community had never patronized Qazi's previous establishment; most Afghan families, says Qazi, can't afford or aren't interested in going out for food they regularly cook in their own homes. He didn't know what to expect, but the sign he'd left at the old location paid off: after a few slow days, business began to pick up.
"I was surprised by how many of my former customers managed to track me down right away," he says. These days word of mouth attracts diners from all over the Chicago area. "I get four to five calls a day asking where we're located," says Qazi. "We fill all of our reservation slots on weekends and also have plenty of walk-ins."
People may try the restaurant for novelty's sake, but they come back for Qazi's food, which combines visual and gustatory spice. Afghan cooking is a cross between Persian and northern Indian cuisine, with lots of vegetarian dishes as well as ground beef, lamb, and chicken grilled as kabobs, prepared in stews, or stuffed in dumplings. Fresh vegetables, fruits, and nuts are all common. Tangy-salty combinations of ingredients like lemon, mint, parsley, yogurt, garlic, salt, and black pepper season the food--and the drinks, too: dough, for example, is a traditional beverage made with yogurt, mint tea, and salt over ice. It's a good cold quasher that will leave you reaching for successive sips of hot black tea spiced with cardamom and plenty of glasses of water.
Signature dishes include kebab-ay-mugh (lemon-marinated chicken seasoned with garlic and salt), kebab-ay-shami (seasoned ground beef kabobs), and kebab-ay-gosfand (lamb kabob). Vegetarians will dig into kadu chalow, candy orange and almost candy-sweet sauteed pumpkin made with onions, tomato sauce, and honey and served alongside rice. Other vegetarian options, served separately or in a generous combo plate with yogurt and rice, include buranee bonjawn, sauteed eggplant that's cooked down with tomato sauce, black pepper, hot green peppers, and lots of olive oil; sabzee, sauteed spinach with garlic, onion, and other spices; and dahl, spicy cooked lentils similar to the Indian version.
Mantoo, another specialty, are dumplings filled with spicy ground beef and scallions, drizzled with yogurt sauce, and sprinkled with mint and hot pepper, the green and orange waking up both plate and palate. Vegetarians can try awshak, or scallion dumplings--the ground meat topping's optional. Green salad in a minty dressing comes with most dishes, as does flatbread (somewhat puffier than Indian nan) and basmati rice, which is a highlight: Kabul House's moist version is full of raisins and slivered carrots.
Everything is homemade, from the yogurt to Persian ice cream and firnee, an Afghan pudding, the last two flavored with rosewater and cardamom. "I buy fresh vegetables and zabiha halal meat [slaughtered according to Islamic law] daily and prepare all of our food from scratch every day," says Qazi. "I don't use canned food or anything frozen, and people tell me they can taste the difference."
Qazi intends to test his recipe for success in February, when he'll open a restaurant in Lincoln Park. "We're hoping to be open on the first of the month," he says. The new Kabul House will take over the address previously occupied by the Moroccan eatery L'Olive, 1629 N. Halsted (312-751-1029). The original is at 3320 Dempster in Skokie, 847-763-9930.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Stephen J. Serio.