The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2016 Fall Dining Guide.
If Omar Masroor hadn’t disliked his job as a car salesman so much, we might not have one of the dearest Afghan restaurants in the area. A chance to see more of his family, all of whom now work with him (his wife, Sofia, cooks), the cozy dining room goes beyond the familiar steamed dumplings and grilled kebabs to offer a long list of specials that are just that. Check out the chalkboard for chicken cooked with eggplant (and lit up like a firecracker) and lamb chops that pulse with garlic and paprika, everything (except the ordinary flatbread) prepared with momlike care. The sleeper: a hamburger zapped with sumac and paprika and treated to a brioche bun.
Afghan Bistro: 8081-D Alban Rd., Springfield, Va. 703-337-4722. afghanbistro.com
Prices: Mains $10-$25.
Sound check: 72 decibels / Conversation is easy.
The following review was originally published Sept. 28, 2016.
Afghan Bistro review: In a Virginia strip mall, kebabs that evoke Kabul
The object of my curiosity: a hamburger on his plate. Why not lamb chops or spicy chicken, among the restaurant’s headliners? As Omar Masroor returned an empty dish to the kitchen, I caught his eye and asked, “You’re the owner of the restaurant, and you ordered a hamburger?” Far from defensive, Masroor lit up and replied, “It’s a great hamburger!”
He’s got that right. When I order the sandwich on a later visit, Masroor’s enthusiasm becomes mine. The patty revels in ground beef whose juices transmit garlic, sumac, lemon pepper and paprika to the tongue without overwhelming the meat. A glossy brioche bun endears me more to the $10 dinner.
One of the area’s youngest Afghan restaurants, his eatery serves the kind of food that prompts some fans to drive three hours from New Jersey to Springfield, Va., just for dinner. Afghan Bistro blends into its environment like a chameleon, which is to say that its plain facade in a generic shopping strip does nothing to make the eatery stand out. The sense you’re somewhere special takes over as soon as you step into the dining room. Small and crowded, it’s nevertheless staffed with people who aren’t just going through the motions but fulfilling their passions. Masroor tells me in a subsequent telephone conversation that he left his job as a car salesman a year ago because he was tired of not seeing his family; restaurant work means he gets lots of face time with his three daughters, who join him at Afghan Bistro when they’re not in school, and his wife and co-owner, Sofia, who does the cooking.
A second reason for ditching sales for hospitality: Masroor says he was troubled by much of what is being passed off as Afghan cooking. Too much Pakistani influence, he says; a genuine Afghan eatery doesn’t peddle falafel or gyros. The owner’s response to wannabes are the recipes of his mother, a native of Kabul who leaves the cooking to Sofia but occasionally drops by to weigh in on specials, maybe veal stew with rhubarb or braised beef with turnips.
Exposure has taught me to order a few appetizers from the printed list and look to the chalkboard menu, almost as lengthy, for further inspiration.
Afghan Bistro is a generous restaurant. Before guests order, they’re likely to be told by a server to count on “never-ending bread, rice and vegetables.”
The staff is also proud of the wares. “The meat is halal,” from animals that have been fed a natural diet, a server informed my party one night. Other attendants let customers know the food contains “no dyes, no MSG, no preservatives.” Any creaminess in the cooking comes from yogurt rather than butter. “We don’t have a microwave,” I overhear Masroor tell the table next to us. “Or a deep-fryer.”
For sure, you want some boulanee (potato turnovers) and mantu (steamed beef dumplings) to start. They are two familiar sights on traditional Afghan menus and, in the case of the delicate boulanee, offered with a cool avocado chutney, on Afghan streets. Beneath a drape of garlicky yogurt await some of those juicy mantu, which are also available on a hot sampler platter for those who find decisions a chore. Along for the ride are sweet roasted butternut squash and luscious eggplant.
Lamb, marinated in garlic, paprika and other bold accents, makes a lovely strategy as a main course. The chops are thin and tender, with a bit of fat for flavor and char for smokiness. Prepare to get down and dirty as you whittle the plump chops down to clean white bones. The No. 1 seller here, beef tenderloin kebab, enjoys similar pedigree and a choice of setups, the best of which is a carrot slaw perfumed with cardamom and heaped on steaming brown rice.
Specials reward scrutiny. If I’m not chasing lamb, I’m angling for chicken. Comfort comes in the form of chicken tinted with turmeric, cloaked in yogurt and scattered with fresh cilantro. Some like it hot. For them, there’s chicken slow-cooked in a tomato sauce, along with eggplant cooked to a glorious mush. The bite is courtesy of Thai chili pepper.
Some of my favorite meatless dishes in the world come from mostly Muslim Afghanistan. American creamed spinach has nothing on sabzi chalou, which in addition to spinach plays up collard greens, turnip leaves, kale, cilantro and fenugreek. Cooked together until the mass is almost dry, and dark as coal, the greens are arranged on aromatic saffron basmati rice.
Afghans don’t eat a lot of fish. Ask for the salmon here, and you risk disappointment. More bothersome, though, is the charmless flatbread. Afghan Bistro currently buys the staple, which resembles a cottony baguette run over by a cement truck. Masroor says he’s looking for a better source. Godspeed, sir.
Dessert gives the restaurant a chance to redeem itself. Firni, cardamom pudding the color of snow and the texture of silk, is the perfect pick-me-up after an Afghan feast. As sated as I always am after relinquishing my entree (now you see it, now you don’t), I’m also happy to make room for a bite of flaky baklava.
While Afghan Bistro features a bar, set off with a string of lights and tiny American flags, the spirits are limited. Masroor says his next step is to create a cocktail list and expand the selection of wines. Diners who wish to bring in their own bottle can do so for a $10 corkage fee, Monday through Thursday.
Don’t assume you can show up and get a table without a reservation. Afghan Bistro has fewer than 50 seats, and word of mouth has helped fill them. With luck, you’ll be shown to a pillow-strewn banquette along the wall, where murals of Afghan life — hunters, dancers and a family gathered around a table with a built-in foot warmer — evoke the culture Masroor’s family said goodbye to more than three decades ago. On some nights, the assembly resembles a mini United Nations; a stream of military personnel can be traced to nearby Fort Belvoir. I’m not surprised when Masroor shares a story about a couple who make the trek from New Jersey — by his account, half a dozen times now.
Food is the initial lure at Afghan Bistro. Family, or at least a sense of community, is the unexpected bonus.