Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Fragrant, Enchanting Cuisine of Afghanistan - Azeen's Afghani Restaurant

Restaurants specializing in the cuisine of Afghanistan are pretty rare in Southern California. And sadly, with limited exposure and knowledge of the cuisine, an eatery like Azeen's Afghani Restaurant would probably not be on the top of most people's radar for a delicious meal, judging from the reaction I've experienced when bringing up this restaurant to various friends.

The first reaction I've gotten over the years has been humorously consistent amongst no less than 8 separate groups of friends:

(me) "Feel like trying Azeen's Afghani Restaurant?"
(friends) "Oh... hm... what is Afghani cuisine like?" or "I don't know if I'm up for really spicy food. Is that like Indian food?"

And when I finally convince some of them to go, the end result has fortunately been consistent as well: Pleasantly surprised reactions and enjoyable meals, it's not hard to see why. Saffron, Cinnamon, Cardamom, Cloves, Garlic, Tomatoes and Dill are some of the key ingredients in many of the dishes served at Azeen's. With ingredients inherently so fragrant and familiar, the initial uncertainty over a foreign cuisine quickly dissipates into appreciation.

My first encounter with Azeen's was years ago: I was meeting some friends in Old Pasadena and walking along Union Street, I saw a simple sign that piqued my interest from the moment I saw it: "Azeen's Afghani Restaurant". While it was too late to change plans that night, I ended up trying it the following week and have been enjoying their dishes ever since. (^_^)

Chef-Owner Abdul Karim began learning how to cook from his family while growing up in Afghanistan. His cousins moved to the United States before him, opening up restaurants in Washington D.C. and Northern California, where Abdul eventually joined them, learning about the restaurant business and further developing his recipes before opening up Azeen's.

Azeen's occupies a quiet space along Union Street (one street north of the more (in)famous, boisterous and touristy section of Colorado Boulevard in Old Town Pasadena). Once inside, the interior is a humble, simply decorated space, with the dining room much longer than it is wide. In this day and age of poorly-planned acoustics in many of the newer restaurants around town, it might be a bit shocking to step into Azeen's and experience an extremely quiet, calm restaurant where one doesn't have to shout to have a conversation at the same table. :)

On this particular visit, after placing our order, the kitchen begins with their usual complementary House Salad, a simple Lettuce mix with Cucumber and Tomatoes dressed with a homemade Salad Dressing of Milk, Mint and Mayonnaise. It's lightly tart with light herbal notes in each bite.

My guest wants to try their Bulanee-e-Katchalu (Turnover filled with Potatoes, Ground Lamb and Herbs). I hesitate for a second because the last time I ordered this dish, it was decent, but strangely missing the Ground Lamb (at least it tasted that way). This time, unfortunately, was the same: The Turnover is nicely fried (not too oily or heavy), with a good bread-like quality to it and a solid, earthy Potato filling. But like before, there was no taste of Ground Lamb at all. It's perplexing and unfortunate.

It's also served with two dipping sauces: The first is a spicy Cilantro, Jalapeno, Garlic and Vinegar Sauce (probably the spiciest item served at Azeen's (most of their dishes are mild)), and the other is a creamy Yogurt, Milk and Garlic Sauce. Both of them complement the Bulanee nicely.

The Smarooq Challaw (Chicken Breast, Sauteed with Mushrooms, Onions, Tomatoes and Green Peppers) is the first to arrive. Chef Karim uses a Yogurt base for the sauce, which gives the dish a nice, lightly tart characteristic.

The Chicken itself is unfortunately a bit too dry, but when eaten together with the Yogurt Sauce it saves the Chicken partially. The other strange aspect about this dish is that it's surprisingly salty (much more so than any other dish on Azeen's menu).

As is listed in the dish's name, their Smarooq Challaw is served with Challaw: Steamed White Basmati Rice with a beautiful touch of Cardamom. It's the perfect accent and is one of the underlying things that makes Azeen's dishes so enjoyable.

The next dish rebounded nicely and has consistently been my favorite dish at Azeen's: Badenjan Challaw (Chunks of Lamb, cooked with Eggplant, Onions and Tomatoes).

Chef Karim uses a Leg of Lamb to start, and stews it for 3-4 hours before serving. Imagine a Lamb that's so tender and succulent, soft and silky! The Eggplant, Onions and Tomatoes all melt together and add to the subtle, smooth brilliance of this dish. Of the 4-5 times that I've ordered this dish over the years, it's been consistently delicious. :)

We also order a side of their Gulpi (A Stew of Cauliflower cooked with Ginger, Onions and Tomatoes).

It's not too often that you find a flavorful Cauliflower dish (outside of Indian cuisine), but Gulpi is one of them. What's so nice about this dish is that each piece of Cauliflower is infused with an intense blend of Ginger, Tomatoes and Onions. It's lightly spicy (in a Ginger sort of way, not Chile-spicy), fragrant and also lightly sweet and tart from the Tomato Stew.

We finish off the meal with a delightful Afghan Tea, which is their House Tea brewed with Cardamom, which really transforms a standard beverage into something far more elegant.

On another visit, we begin with another popular dish: Aushak (Leek and Scallion-filled Dumplings, topped with Yogurt and Meat Sauce, sprinkled with Mint).

The Dumplings have been consistently well-executed the 2-3 times I've ordered it, with a good thickness for the Dumpling Skin, and a good, clean beefy flavor from the Ground Beef Meat Sauce grounding the dish amidst the fragrance of Chef Karim's herb and spice mixture.

We then continue on with one of the most interesting dishes on the menu: Quabili Pallaw (Pieces of Lamb under a mound of Pallaw Rice, topped with Carrot Strips and Raisins).

This is a dish that throws off your senses initially: Naturally sweet (from the inherent sugar content in the Carrots and Raisins) and fragrant from the Pallaw (Browned Basmati Rice with Cardamom, Cinnamon, Cloves and Cumin), people unfamiliar with Afghani cuisine may associate these flavors with a dessert, but then you take a bite of the tender chunks of Lamb and it just clicks; it's a beautiful pairing that's interesting, but familiar, yet still very engaging.

Another interesting dish to try is their Sabsi Challaw (Chunks of Lamb, cooked with Spinach, Onions and Garlic).

The Spinach and spice profile remind me a little bit of Egyptian Mulukhiyah, cooked down to a creamy, extremely tender consistency. The tender chunks of Lamb complement the Spinach just fine, but it's nowhere near as interesting as their Badenjan Challaw (Lamb and Eggplant Stew), which has a better integration of flavors.

On my most recent visit, we began with Mantu (Steamed Dumplings filled with Chopped Lamb, Onions and Herbs, topped with Yogurt and Sauteed Mixed Vegetables).

There's a mesmerizing light spiciness from the Paprika, Dill and Yogurt flavors combining with each Dumpling. The Lamb itself comes through in a good pungent aroma that reminds one more of Mutton than Lamb, but it's still excellent! :)

While their Kabob-e-Gousfand (Tender Cubes of Lamb) has been overcooked and dry, their Kabob-e-Chupan (Tender Pieces of Lamb Loin Chop) on the other hand has been much more successful.

Chef Karim marinates the Lamb Loin Chops overnight in a Yogurt, Oil and proprietary Spice mixture, and the result is an extremely tender, moist and flavorful Lamb Chop. The Lamb Chop is pan-seared with Garlic, Pepper and Mint and while it's a touch salty at times, there's a distinct tartness that goes well with the tender Lamb Loin Chops. The Pallaw Rice is at once pleasantly fragrant yet engaging and a great pairing.

The Gulpi Challaw (Tender Chunks of Beef, cooked with Cauliflower, Ginger, Tomatoes and Onions) is essentially the Gulpi (Cauliflower Stew) side dish, but with Stewed Beef.

The chunks of Beef are thankfully tender and match the stewed Cauliflower with its Ginger, Tomato and Onion flavors, which once again, come across as interesting, yet familiar (in a good way).

We finish off the meal with their Buranee-e-Badenjan (Sauteed Eggplant topped with Yogurt and Meat Sauce). Like their Cauliflower side dish, Chef Karim transforms potentially mundane vegetable side dishes into something far more delicious than they have any right to be.

The Sauteed Eggplant takes on the slightly sour and sweet from the Tomatoes, and your nose is engaged by the Cinnamon, Mint and Lamb Jus flavors that go into the sauce.

Service is one area that's a weakness at Azeen's. In each of my visits over the years, there's always been 1 server (in addition to Chef-Owner Karim) watching over the restaurant. On slower nights, it's OK, but on nights where the restaurant is busy (and that's only at about ~60% - 70% capacity) the wait for getting anything (from drinks / refills, etc.) can get a little unbearable at times. Prices range from $5.50 - $21.90 for most menu items, with all 3 dessert offerings at $4.90. We average about ~$27 - $30 per person (including tax and tip).

Azeen's Afghani Restaurant is a pleasant surprise to the more touristy Old Town Pasadena, serving up some unique and engaging dishes of Afghanistan. From the simple, but delicious Aushak (Leek and Scallion Dumplings) to the Quabili Pallaw (Tender chunks of Lamb with Carrots, Raisins and the amazing Basmati Rice with Cardamom, Cinnamon, Cloves and Cumin), to one of the best Lamb dishes around town with their Badenjan Challaw (Slow-cooked Lamb with Eggplant, Tomato and Onions), Azeen's delivers some noteworthy dishes. While Azeen's uses plenty of spices, they are generally familiar ones like Cinnamon, Cloves and Mint, and the dishes are very mild in comparison to, say, the fiery tempest of Pakistani cuisine. For those looking to try some new dishes, Azeen's Afghani Restaurant is worth a visit.

Rating: 7.5 (out of 10.0)

Azeen's Afghani Restaurant
110 East Union Street
Pasadena, CA 91103
Tel: (626) 683-3310

Hours: [Lunch] Mon - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.
[Dinner] 7 Days A Week, 5:30 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.


WeezerMonkey said...

I looooove Azeen's. Reading this makes me want it right now!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi WeezerMonkey,

Yah, me, too. :) When I finished writing this and looked over the pictures... I honestly wanted to get in my car and drive over to Azeen's to get more of their heavenly Lamb and Eggplant. :)

Noah said...

I really like this place a lot. People need to give Afghani food a little more credit and get out there.

Great report.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Noah,

Thanks. :) Yah, I'm glad that you enjoyed Afghanistan Day during the Man Bites World experience. Definitely a solid restaurant that I don't forget when I'm in the Old Town area. :)

glutster said...

Maan...i've been wanting to come here since I first started going to school up there (2 years already!).

I'm really dumb, I've set myself to go there for lunch like 5 times already, but...I always end up going to Tibet Nepal house a block away in the rationalization excuse of cheaper delicious buffet, yay!

But more, going there no matter what :)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Teenage Glutster,

Well it's not a bad thing to go to Tibet Nepal House (good food :), but definitely give Azeen's a try sometime. Let me know how your visit goes. :)

pleasurepalate said...

I love Azeen's. Every person I've brought there for a meal has always come back on their own. :)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Abby,

Nice! :) Glad to hear you not only enjoy it, but also have been able to get people to visit and return. :)

Afghan said...

The reason they took the lamb out of the Bolanee's potato filling is probably becuase traditionally, bolanee is only filled with a potato and onion mixture or a gandana mixture (i don't know what to call gandana in english, it is something in between a leak, a chive and a spring onion... you can find it in many chinese and iranian stores and it's labled 'leak' but I'm not sure it's technically a leak). Anyways, I haven't been to Azeen's yet but as an Afghan who misses all the wonderful Afghan restaurants in Northern Virginia and the Bay Area, I'll definitely have to check it out... though I am a bit confused by the fact that they put meat sauce on top of the badenjan buranee... there is not supposed to be any meat in badenjan buranee!!!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Afghan,

Thanks for the interesting info. :) I look forward to your thoughts on Azeen's; please let me know your visit goes. Thanks!

tasteofbeirut said...

I fell in love with Afghani cuisine the moment I tried it; I love it as much as I love Persian cuisine! I do know I love their dumplings as much as the Lebanese ones.

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