Afghan cuisine isn’t found too frequently in LA, so I was naturally excited to try out Azeen’s in Old Pasadena with friends last week. We arrived for an early 5:30 pm dinner and the restaurant was empty save for an older couple in the corner. It was a quiet place, tucked in just streets from the popular Xiomara and Yujean Kang. Our waitress, though a bit forgetful, was very helpful with the menu and eager to please.
We started with a trio of appetizers, first, the Mantu. A set of four large dumplings filled with a savory mixture of ground beef, onions and various herbs. Steamed and topped with raita and vegetables (chickpeas, corns and peas) sauteed in tomato based sauce, I thought they tasted like massive Chinese potstickers (pronnounced “worteep” in Cantonese) with the added Afghan influence combo of raita and sautéed vegetables. They were alright, but after being exposed to many good variations on Asian dumplings, I didn’t find Azeen’s any more spectacular.
I did enjoy the Bulanee-E-Katchalu, deep fried pastries with the same filling as the Mantu only with the addition of potatoes. The hot crispy shells made a welcome contrast to the cooling tang of the yogurt. Topped with a ground beef sauce (much like Zippy’s meat sauce) you got your crunch, moosh of the yogurt and a beefy goodness rolled into one.
I swear they’ve got a Chinese chef in the kitchen making the Aushak – leek and scallion filled dumplings. They were exactly likes the ones found all over Arcadia. Was I eating Chinese or Afghan? The only thing that made this un-Asian was the yogurt and meat sauce, finished by sprinkled of chopped mint. All the flavors blended well, I was just taken aback by how similar Afghan food was to my “home” food!
Julie and Daniel had the Kabob-E-Gousfand, fancy name for luscious lamb kabobs! They were presented with two long skewers between a side of Pallaw and Afghani bread. I tasted a bit of everything and the Pallaw was crap good. The rice was nutty, browned and well seasoned with strong onion flavors. A long, bumpy strip of bread looked better than it tasted. Could have benefited from being heated up as the cool temperature made it kind of hard and unpleasantly chewy. The bottom was sprinkled with black sesame seeds, which I thought were a nice touch. And the lamb, sweet and tender, a tad spicy but boasting an inherent gamy-ness that makes lamb so attractive. I wanted more than a bite, but felt bad about eating their entrees.
The Absi Challaw looks a lot like palak paneer but this is no vegetarian dish. Under the layer of softly cooked spinach with onion and garlic were soft chunks of stewed lamb. I liked the stewed method of cooking lamb better than the grilled kabob style – pieces just fell apart with the prod of a fork. Oh, all soft and moist, I craved for a big hunk of bread to soak up the meaty sweet juices and spinach.
The Challaw Badenjan was my least favorite. Even after only two bites, the dish became boring very quickly. There was nothing wrong with the eggplant, cooked in a tangy tomato based stew and topped with raita, but I got tired with the repetitive texture. It was mush after mush. You definitely taste eggplant, but it was cut into such tiny pieces it may as well have been nonexistent were it not for the flavors.
Saving the most delicious for the last, my Challaw Kadu was crazy good. The vibrant yet homey yellow shade of the sautéed butternut squash was a visual delight but warm and comfortingly sweet in my mouth. The mellow squash were sprinkled with spices I cannot recall the names of, but I can tell you they added their own bit of western umami while cooing out the natural sweetness of the squash. My first spoonful: a bit of hot Pallaw, scoop of squash and some minty raita. That rocked any lamb dish straight out of its bowl.
Azeen’s Afghani Restaurant
110 E. Union St.
Pasadena, CA 91103