Most Americans can’t find Afghanistan on a map, but most San Carlans know they need to head to a strip mall on El Camino to find amazing Afghan cuisine at long-time San Carlos restaurant Kabul. Despite its less-than-ideal location, Kabul has been a pillar of the local restaurant scene for 30 years for its high-quality unique cuisine with ample portions and reasonable prices. We often find ourselves taking home food!
It’s a fairly large restaurant, but usually draws a big crowd most evenings, particularly on the weekends. The front small lobby, often crowded with people waiting for their table, is decorated with both photos from Afghanistan as well as reviews and awards that the restaurant has earned (including its Zagat review) since its opening in 1989. Despite its inauspicious storefront, inside the restaurant is very pleasant, open, and well decorated with photos, maps, garments, and other items from its namesake area.
For those not familiar with Afghan food, it is related to other cuisines of the Middle East or South Asia, including ingredients and methods similar to those found in Persian, Indian, and Mediterranean cooking. (Interestingly, one of the largest populations of Afghan Americans is just across the Bay in Fremont). Rice is of course a staple (Basmati rice preparations called Pallaw and Challaw), as are stews, kebabs, and dumplings.
There is a small set of appetizers, which include a few different varieties of Afghan turnovers and dumplings. For main courses, lamb is a featured meat, but Kabul’s menu also includes beef, chicken, fish, and shrimp. The core of their vegetable offerings include Sabsi (spinach), Kadu (pumpkin), Badenjan (eggplant), and Gulpi (cauliflower), and yogurt sauce is present with many dishes.
Their menu works equally well if you order individual dishes or decide to share family-style. Every main dish is served with a small salad and Afghani bread. Kabobs are popular entrees, which include rice and a skewer of meat (lamb, beef, chicken, shrimp, or fish), nicely spiced but not particularly spicy. There is also a kabob combination on the menu which is great for one hungry diner or to share. You can also order lamb or veal loin chops, a variety of lamb or chicken stew preparations, as well as entree portions of dumplings.
Despite the focus on the meat, their vegetable presentations are actually the most interesting and unique dishes. You can order any of the main four (spinach, pumpkin, eggplant, or cauliflower) as a side dish or as a main with rice and bread. We like to order the vegetarian platter, which includes three of the vegetables along with rice (and sometimes we’ll order the fourth as a side dish). Everyone has their favorites (I’m partial to the spinach, and my wife loves the cauliflower and eggplant), but in many ways the pumpkin is the most unique and flavorful of all of the dishes. Along with the eggplant, the pumpkin is served with yogurt sauce and lamb meat sauce (although you can ask for a vegetarian preparation). It’s a dish that hard to stop eating!
They also have a small dessert selection with some tasty options (you can never go wrong with Baklava), but you may find yourself too full from the savory food to order dessert. Although the wait staff can sometimes be slow on a very busy night, in general we have found everyone who works there to be very friendly and helpful in selecting dishes.
The fact that Kabul has maintained its popularity over three decades in an offbeat location speaks to the quality of their food and broad appeal to both vegetarians and meat lovers alike. There’s little doubt it will keep pleasing San Carlans for decades to come.