Columbia is all about villages and neighborhoods, in a way that is very structured and not always convenient -- at least to outsiders. Many of the neighborhood restaurants are tucked into village centers that are designed to be the commercial community for the surrounding areas.
And thus, you have to look hard to find two restaurants, a couple of miles apart just off Cedar Lane, that serve distinctly different but delicious versions of the shish kabob.
Maiwand Kabob, in Harpers Choice Village Center, offers the Afghan version; Hickory Ridge Grill, in the Hickory Ridge Village Center, serves the Greek equivalent. Neither restaurant is in the white-table, fine-dining category -- Maiwand is mostly a carryout with a few plain tables and chairs -- but both prepare food that is worth risking Columbia's mazelike layout to experience.
Maiwand, the senior of the two restaurants, is well known in the Afghan expatriate community. Opened in 1999 by Roxanne and Naseen Rafiq, Maiwand attracts a steady clientele of Afghan natives, who queue up to order kabobs and curries. But the line is hardly limited to Afghan exiles; office workers and housewives also stake their claims for one of the 28 seats in the small storefront.
The only difference between eat-in and carryout is whether your food is served in a plastic form container or on a plastic form plate; everyone gets the same utensils.
The most interesting items on the menu are the various appetizers, such as auslak (ravioli filled with scallions and served with yogurt and ground beef) and bowlawni (twin deep-fried rectangles of dough as thin as phyllo -- one filled with potatoes, the other with scallions). There are also samosas (pastries filled with peas and potatoes) and pan-fried pumpkin slices, served with yogurt and ground beef. The tandoori bread, served with all the kabob dishes or as a separate order, alone is worth a visit.
The kabob dishes are the stars: chicken tikka (chunks of dark meat marinated in tandoori spices), beef, chicken (chunks of marinated white meat), kofta (seasoned ground beef) and my favorite, lamb. All of the meats are lean and tender, flavorful from their marinades and kissed with char from the open flame. The salad of chopped lettuce and cucumber is refreshing; the gently spiced rice is, too.
There are a few other entrees, including grilled lamb chops and grilled salmon, but the name of the restaurant champions its best dishes.
Hickory Ridge Grill opened just a year ago, but the restaurant roots of owner-chef George Pappas run much deeper -- to the old Vesuvio's Pizza, which for three decades was a mainstay of Washington's Dupont Circle.
Pappas worked in various other aspects of the food and restaurant business until, as he explains, he caught the bug to return to cooking by opening his own restaurant. He and his wife, Penny, took over the location -- formerly home to another restaurant with a similar name but a sagging reputation.
"I started to name it Baldie's," Pappas joked, referring to his own shining pate, but his wife vetoed that suggestion. For the past year, he said, has been luring back customers who had bad associations with the previous occupant.
Though Hickory Ridge Grill caters to takeout and delivery customers, the bright and cheery space has proper table service, cloth napkins and metal silverware. It touts itself as American with a Mediterranean flair, and the best dishes among those I tried were clearly the Greek favorites.
Though the pork souvlakia platter had too much fat and gristle in the meat, the lamb kabob was nearly perfect: tender chunks of meat, cooked just past medium-rare and served with couscous. A Greek salad banished any thoughts of diner concoctions: A lovely tangle of mixed spring greens was lavished with bits of feta and adorned with tomato wedges, a couple of anchovy fillets and a few olives.
The spanakotiropita (spinach pie) is presented as a thin phyllo packet filled with spinach and feta: a case of too much (wonderfully crisp) pastry and not quite enough insides. But the yee-roe (spelled elsewhere as gyro) is fresh pita bread topped with thick slices of marinated meat and served with taziki (cucumber yogurt sauce). The accompanying side dish can be fries -- for the classic version -- or a small green salad.
The menu includes classics such as hummus and fried calamari. But the gooey Greek bread -- a loaf of bread, split and topped with a feta-garlic spread -- is a guilty pleasure not to be missed.
Maiwand Kabob, 5487 Harpers Farm Rd., Columbia, 410-992-7754. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 12:30 to 9 p.m. Sundays. Appetizers, $3.99; entrees, $799 to $12.99. Accessible to handicapped individuals.
Hickory Ridge Grill, 6420 Freetown Rd., Columbia, 443-535-9876. Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 to 9 p.m. Sundays. Appetizers at lunch, $4 to $7.50; entrees at lunch, $6 to $11; appetizers at dinner, $4 to $7.50; entrees at dinner, $7 to $18. Accessible to handicapped individuals.
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The lamb kabob at Hickory Ridge Grill is tender, cooked just past medium-rare.George Pappas, owner of Hickory Ridge Grill, with the restaurant's well-prepared Greek salad. At Maiwand, lamb and chicken kabobs on fresh tandoori bread are served with rice and salad.