This being Washington, where the world often arrives at our doorstep to find a better life or just pick a fight, Afghan immigrants will regularly ask chef and co-owner Homayon Karimy if his Kite Runner Cafe serves the real deal: food as it’s prepared back in Afghanistan. Karimy tells them the truth.
“I tell them no,” the chef says. “It’s impossible to make authentic Afghan food like they make it in Afghanistan.”
It’s impossible, he might add, if Kite Runner Cafe wants to stay afloat. This is the lumpy truth that authenticity hounds find difficult to swallow: The metro area is not one large homogenous stomach, but a barely tamed jungle of voracious international appetites, few of which can be satisfied to their precise standards. It’s a brave chef who attempts to cater to one particular palate, to the exclusion of all others, unless his restaurant sits squarely in a sizable immigrant enclave such as Eden Center in Falls Church or Little Ethiopia on Ninth Street NW.
Kite Runner sits at the base of the sleek, contemporary 3800 Lofts in the Cherrydale neighborhood of Arlington, surrounded by the comforts of suburban life. Little Kabul, it is not.
Just as relevant, Karimy is an Afghan native raised in Pakistan, where his family had fled to avoid the Soviet war of the 1980s. When he moved to the United States in 1998, Karimy was assimilated into American-style hospitality via the Lebanese Taverna Group, with whom he worked more than a decade, absorbing information and cooking techniques like a super computer. (The Lebanese Taverna chain nicely demonstrates an immigrant group’s desire to move into the American mainstream without obliterating its own identity.)
The clean, economically decorated Kite Runner, which opened in May 2013, is clearly cut from the same cloth. So while Karimy’s qabuli palao isn’t the classic preparation with mutton broth or almond slivers — deletions designed to appeal to vegetarians and America’s growing army of allergy sufferers — the basmati rice still manages to ferry the flavors of Afghanistan via its spices, sweet raisins and carrot garnishes. Call it Afghan Lite if you want, but the dish remains a subtle, complicated bite.
Karimy’s restaurant, in a sense, reflects his own journey: Kite Runner’s compact menu channels the flavors of Afghanistan, Lebanon and India. The latter cuisine might seem like an outlier until you understand that, in terms of cuisine, the border between India and Pakistan is virtually nonexistent. Both cultures adore the heady pungency of ginger and garlic.
Those flavors are front and center in many of Karimy’s meat-based dishes. Both his chicken and lamb kabobs are marinated for hours with yogurt, ginger, garlic and tandoori spices. Despite their similar preparations, the chicken conveyed the aromatics and heat with more conviction, perhaps because the fowl includes an extra kick of lemon, which seems to amplify the entire dish. The one drawback to the chicken: The boulders of bird tend to dry out over the gas grill.
The lamb chops have no such problem, even when the grill cook overshot my desired medium-rare by a solid 10 degrees. My chops arrived outrageously charred, down to the blackened bone, simultaneously activating my saliva glands and my flight response. To my surprise, the chops, while sporting no pink in the center, remained succulent throughout. I feared they might taste like Vietnamese jerky on a stick; they turned out to be fleshy and fiery Punjabi popsicles. (One suggestion: Trim more of the outer fat, which doesn’t render well on the grill.)
The lamb chops and the lamb karahi come with a side of garlic paste, which I think works better on the latter dish. The oil and cooked-down tomatoes that accompany the lamb karahi help calm the nasal-clearing obnoxiousness of the paste; I also enjoyed the karahi’s complex heat with a small forkful of Kite Runner’s thick, minty yogurt salad, which you might consider as one of your three sides.
Lest you consider Kite Runner little more than a Central Asian meat market, the place offers plenty to appease the veg contingent. Some items are considered full-fledged entrees, such as the sabzee and kadu. But even with a trio of accompaniments, both the watery-but-flavorful spinach and sweet butternut squash plates feel more like mezze than fully composed entrees with sides. The exception is the falafel sandwich, a torpedo of soft naan wrapped around lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, tzatziki, tahini and some hard-fried chickpea nuggets, a delicious bite despite the oil reserves concealed in every falafel ball.
One of the greatest pleasures at Kite Runner is also one of its simplest: Karimy’s hummus, a velvety puree of chickpeas, tahini and garlic. Sprinkled with sumac and finished with a thin line of olive oil, the lemony hummus feels as right as a sunrise over the Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan. As I think back on that elegant dip, I recall something Karimy told me: His place is named, in part, to honor Khaled Hosseini, author of “The Kite Runner.” Karimy could identify with one of the book’s characters, a young boy who starts life anew in the United States.
“He will have a future in the land of opportunity,” Karimy says of the character. “We’re in the same boat.”
The future for Karimy and his Kite Runner Cafe looks to be as boundless as the sky.
3800 Lee Hwy., Arlington.
Hours: Monday-Saturday 11 a.m. to
9 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Nearest Metro: Clarendon or Virginia Square, with a 1.2 mile trip to the restaurant.