On the exposed brick wall, amidst the tasseled tapestries and hand woven rugs, across from the Free Afghanistan poster, you’ll find her – the iconic National Geographic girl with those haunting green eyes. It’s Wali’s sister. The long time maître d of Ariana Afghan Kebab on 9th Avenue and 52nd Street, Wali is charismatic, charming, and totally full of shit of course. He tosses that plumb out for the fanny pack clad, seemingly as some sort of moxie test to establish NYC creds. I said “my ass” after he threw it at me when I was just off the boat from Nebraska 30 years ago; he’s been feeding me ever since.
In the intervening decades, I discovered to my dismay that Wali doesn’t actually own Ariana, but he treats the menu and his customers like he’s a primary shareholder. He artfully rebrands innocuous menu items like “black tea” into “happy tea” and here he’s not bullshitting. Perhaps it’s the cardamom, the fragrant yogurt and dill dressing or the wood charcoal-fired lamb and beef wafting through the cozy space, but there’s something warm here and it starts with Wali and his boss and owner, Rafi. Rafi spills compliments like Edward Snowden spills beans… “Frankie, you are looking so handsome tonight, and gorgeous Irene, what a beautiful dress, I love it.” I bought in so much so that I was actually hurt when I heard him cheating on me one night with some asshole waiting for takeout: “David, my friend, you are looking so good. Really fit. How’s your beautiful wife, Jen and daughter Emma?” Fucking David wasn’t even all that handsome either, and honestly could Jen be as beautiful as Irene? Hell no. And don’t get me started on fucking little Emma. Alas, I digress…
While Rafi credits his sister for the subtle spicing that makes this food so comforting, make no mistake, it’s Rafi who makes sure veteran New Yorkers and fanny packers alike keep tucking into Ariana’s eponymous kebabs and tasty vegetarian curries including eggplant, potato, pumpkin, okra, spinach or zucchini. Like Wali, Rafi is gracious, attentive and hyper-organized. In fact both Wali and Rafi run a very tight ship – individually, as they trade days and run the entire business solo, handling a thriving phone and takeout business while simultaneously waiting on tables, serving as concierge and maître d to the tourist set and indulging newbies and regulars alike with flattering praise and attentive service.
On my most recent excursion it was Wali who took care of Irene and me and his shock was palpable when I opted out of my usual bit of heaven, Kabuli Palow with Chicken to ensure that my review was not unduly biased by hyper-familiar taste buds… a rare but regrettable diagnosis. While perusing the menu we toasted our half-a-versary with a large Taj Mahal lager beer… while both the wine and beer are moderately priced, the wine list is thin on variety and the last time I tried the Pinot Grigio I had visions of deadly dehydration and relishing my own urine over this rocket fuel.
Irene opted for the Aushe Burida, a noodle, yogurt and curried beef dish reminiscent of a Middle Eastern version of beef stroganoff. I got the Salmon Fish Kebab which Wali upgraded to a “palow” version, forgoing the usual brown basmati rice (which in itself is quite delicious) with a white basmati rice that is cooked in a meat broth that renders it brown before it’s blended with julienned carrots, raisins, almonds and pistachios. If for nothing else, get your ass in here for the palow rice… it’s food for the gods. We shared two appetizers, Kadoo Bolanee – fried pumpkin turnovers and Aushak, delicately seasoned boiled dumplings served in a tomato-based meat sauce topped with Afghan yogurt.
The Kadoo Bolanee is an old favorite, it’s soft flakey crust not overly saturated in oil, but enough so that it almost tastes like a guilty pastry when paired with the sweet pumpkin filling. I drizzle mine with the accompanying Afghan yogurt sauce before spooning on the ubiquitous green chutney sauce at every table. It hits the palate with medium heat to both counteract and complement the sweet pumpkin goodness. Go for the red chutney if you’re so inclined, it’s a bit more fiery but not so much so that it overwhelms the senses.
The Aushak Irene ordered had an under-the-radar sophistication to it, with a subtle complexity that added up to more than the sum of it’s parts – basically soft boiled, leak-filled dumplings marinated in a mild tomato and beef sauce, topped with yogurt. It was a tummy-warmer. My only regret was that of repetition as it had a very similar signature to one of our entrée’s, the Aushe Burida, a soft-boiled noodle casserole whose strengths were a bit too similar. Both are strong, sound dishes, but knowing the menu as I do, I wouldn’t order them together again. The Aushe Burida’s noodles are soft and delicious and the tomato-based beef sauce seemed to be the same base as that used in the Aushak. The texture of the Aushe Burida is quite lovely and sets it apart, as your initial bite will verify the “homemade” pledge as the noodles melt away in time for your palate to succumb to the tangy yogurt and delicately spiced tomato sauce before the taste of beef finally registers… it’s a well-timed little mouth symphony, conducted by saliva… I have no idea what this means but it seemed to round out a spurious metaphor.
My Salmon Fish Kebab was served with Ariana’s de rigueur side salad topped with a standout dill yogurt dressing that I enjoy blending with the palow rice, for a tartish, sweetish, lettuce-ish basmati heaven, but that’s just me. Before I met Irene, like say on a bad date to said establishment, I’d have to pretend this purposeful mishmash of rice and salad happened by accident… dining with the love of your life means arrogantly combining incongruous foods while perhaps losing “handsome” points from the sharp-eyed staff.
The salmon had the desired silky texture with a bit of a sear. It was neither overdone nor under but somehow failed to capture the wood-charcoal goodness or absorb the sophisticated marinades that enhanced the superb chicken, beef and lamb kebabs I’ve had on previous visits. It was still quite good, particularly when paired with the red chutney, but not the knockout dish that I had become accustomed to.
For dessert, we ordered all available – both the Firnee and the Baklava. The Firnee is a delicate, magically spiced Afghan pudding with hints of cardamom and almond slivers topped with ground pistachios. It floats across your palate and finishes with the exact right amount of nutty sweetness. Then there’s the commercial floor tile, I mean, Baklava. Okay, in fairness, it tastes damn good, like a baklava should, but the knife they supply should be swapped out with an acetylene cutting torch and some eye protection.
As we (okay I) finished off the final remnants of Firnee and industrial strength Baklava, I heard Wali take the order of an Afghan family behind me. “And what can I get this very handsome gentleman?” Christ, is every fucking one good looking these days? Despite seriously questioning my overall handsomeness, my tummy is sated, and happy. Happy as Wali’s tea. Irene is truly gorgeous. And thoughtful and smart. And so much more. On this half-a-versary she reminisces about our first visit here, 6 months ago. “I thought you’d be a typical cheese and fat-loving American… (she’s Filipina) and then you brought me here. I love this place.” After I remind her that I really am a cheesy fat-loving American, albeit, with an adventurous (okay persnickety) palate, I say “I do too.” Because I do love it here at Ariana. It’s like coming home to mom’s comfort food if she were Afghani and told me I was handsome even more than she already does. And bottom line, when you factor in all the subtle spicing, the wonderful curries, the tender kebabs, Wali’s famous sister and all that handsome / beautiful-speak, why you’ll forget all about some jawbreaker baklava and tinkle tasting wine.
Rating: Damn right I’d eat here again.
Also published on Medium.