By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, October 31, 2004
* (out of four stars)
The long lines at Kabob Palace finally forced its Afghan owners, brothers Mohammad and Habib Akbar, to expand the place this year, and, lucky for them, they were able to take over a failed restaurant on the very same block. People driving by this stretch of town now see double: There's the 14-year-old original Kabob Palace, a popular haven for area taxi drivers, and Kabob Palace Family Restaurant, a larger space with a longer menu and a few more creature comforts.
Though lit like an operating room, the offshoot makes an attempt to look a bit dressier than its moderate prices might suggest. Pink cloth napkins are tucked into the glasses on each table, and handsome fabric maps on the walls lend a sense of place. And, unlike at the original location, which is strictly self-service, there are waiters and waitresses. To either side of the entrance is a small private room, one strewn with pillows for more casual dining, the other illuminated by a chandelier. Either space would be welcome when the occasion calls for something modestly festive but the budget is small.
The first page of the menu is -- no surprise -- devoted to kebabs: boneless chicken, bone-in chicken, crisp-skinned fish, marinated beef, lamb multiple ways and combination plates. Being a grazer, I can never resist the Palace Combo No. 12, which lets me try a chicken, a lamb and a ground sirloin kebab. My favorite of the bunch is the ground sirloin, or kubideh, with its loose texture and herbal seasoning. The meat is arranged on the plate with a mound of steaming and fragrant rice and a choice of vegetables, typically (bland) chickpeas or (better) spinach. A jar of ground sumac is placed on every table, for those who want to add its subtly fruity and astringent edge to their eating, and the constant slap-slap-slapping you hear from behind the kitchen door signals that the Afghan bread is baked to order on the walls of a clay oven.
There are only a handful of starters, including soup (take your pick between chicken and vegetable) and samosas. The latter are big, crisp snacks filled with ground beef or cardamom-punched vegetables and served with a pale green mint-and-yogurt dip. Equally Indian in flavor is the aloo papri chat, a salad of chickpeas, diced potato, cucumber and bits of crisp pastry tossed with tamarind chutney; enough for two to share as an appetizer, it is at once cool, peppery and sweet-tart. Of the various side dishes, I gravitate toward the eggplant with potatoes, a soothing mash that includes tomatoes and is typically available only on Wednesdays.
The second page of the menu continues the protein theme, but gets more adventurous. Lamb brains, anyone? Among the chef's specials (the cooks include an Afghan and a Pakistani), goat karahi shows up as a sort of stew in a shallow pot; abundant chunks of bone-in goat are cloaked in a brick-red sauce of tomatoes, peppers and fresh ginger that wash over the taste buds in waves of heat. Butter chicken, on the other hand, is second-rate stuff. The pieces of chicken are hidden in too much sweet tomato cream sauce. Fried fish, whole lamb leg, gyros, biryanis and vegetable dishes round out the possibilities.
Another of the new restaurant's assets, the lunch buffet, brings in a steady stream of customers. For about $8 a person, you get pita bread, salad and half a dozen or so homey entrees and side dishes to fill up on. The restaurant doesn't serve alcohol, but it does offer several refreshing beverages, including dough (pronounced doog), which looks like a glass of just-poured milk but, frothy and white, is actually fresh yogurt and club soda. The mango lassi combines fruit with yogurt. It's delicious, if a bit richer.
Kabob Palace Family Restaurant is true to its name, sometimes in unexpected ways. The small band of servers, cashier and cooks is quick to welcome diners, many of whom appear to be regulars, but the workers also feel comfortable airing their differences with one another, as on the afternoon I observed two of them bickering when one interrupted a patron mid-conversation. The service can be frustrating (a side dish is forgotten) but also endearing. As I was leaving from an early lunch, the young man behind the counter urged me to stay. "The fried fish just came out!" he said, tipping me off to a fresh entree on the buffet. Another afternoon, I watched as Habib Akbar showed up to check in on business. Before saying hi to the guys in the kitchen, he gave each waitress a friendly buss on the cheek. Meanwhile, depending on the hour, a customer or two can be observed praying on carpets in a hallway in the direction of Mecca. Above all, Kabob Palace Family Restaurant yields a rich snapshot of immigrant life.
You may not have much interest in dessert -- this is filling food -- but baklava, rice pudding and grated carrots are among the endings to choose from, should you have space available. The carrots are mashed with nuts, sugar and cardamom so that they look like steak tartare, but that image shouldn't deter you from trying them; they make a satisfying dessert.
The tiny original outpost, by the way, has one asset its spinoff doesn't: really long hours. No matter the time of day or night, you can get a kebab and some bread at Kabob Palace, which stays open 24/7.