Shari Ghul-Ghula

Van Dorn Station

Shopping Center

512-A South Van Dorn Street

Alexandria

212-9437

Hours: Lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., dinner 3 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Prices: Lunch $3.99 to $6.25; dinner soup and appetizers from $2.25 to $3. Entrees $5.95 to $9.95.

Cards: Diners Club

No separate nonsmoking area.

Husband-wife owners John and Fahima Baluch grew up in Afghanistan and, in this first try at running a restaurant, they draw on the counsel of John Baluch's father, who was a restaurateur in his native country's capital, Kabul.

The entrees, moderately priced and slightly lower than other Afghan restaurants in Northern Virginia, are confined to a handful or so of chicken, lamb and beef dishes, plus several good vegetarian choices. Typically with Afghan food, the marinades and spices add zest and interest to the various meats. The renditions at Shari Ghul-Ghula are generally good, although some are not quite up to the best Afghan cooking at other area restaurants.

Aush, however, the dense vegetable and noodle soup, can match any I've tasted elsewhere. It's thickened with yogurt and garnished with dried mint leaves and a sweet, well-seasoned sauce of ground meat and tomatoes.

A small amount of this meat-and-tomato-based sauce is ladled over side dishes, such as the eggplant and the "pumpkin" (actually butternut squash).

As for other openers, there are only four choices, and in order of preference they are: aushak, the delicate ravioli-like dumplings filled with scallions; sambosay ghoshti, the savory fried dumplings filled with ground beef and chickpeas; a tangy sauteed sliced eggplant with meat sauce; and bulaunee, a meat and herb stuffed turnover that had an overly dry, crumbly pastry wrapper.

Kebabs come in beef, lamb and chicken, and the latter was especially good, smoky and tender, served with a mound of gently seasoned rice. A lemony beef kebab with charred edges was flavorful but a litle chewy. Much the same is true for another beef dish, korma chalow, stir-fried beef with onions, green pepper and tomato.

Be prepared to linger over your kebabs and kormas as service is well-intentioned but slow.

A dish I enjoyed without qualification was the lamb stew with tomatoes in a gravy of well-cooked onions.

Another lamb dish worth considering is the quabili palow, chunks of lamb buried within a festive-looking mound of rice decorated with slivered almonds, raisins and carrot strips.

Among the vegetarian dishes, I liked both the rich, sauteed butternut squash topped with yogurt, and the gently spiced spinach blended with onions and garlic.

There are several desserts, but the best is the baklava in an orange-flavored syrup. And the perfect accompaniment to the baklava is a cup of hot cardamom tea.