This week's gastronomic adventures include an old Afghan favorite in a new location and a new Thai restaurant that just might be the best in the Twin Cities.
It has been quite a few years since I last set foot in Afghanistan, and my recollections of the cuisine are foggy at best. But of this much I am certain: The food at the newly relocated Khyber Pass Cafe in St. Paul is as tasty as anything I ate in Kandahar or Kabul, and much more sanitary.
In its previous location, on St. Clair Avenue near Randolph Avenue, the Khyber Pass was a well-kept secret; now that it has moved to Grand Avenue just east of Snelling Avenue, it should attract a lot more students and others with adventurous palates and limited budgets. The simple but tasteful decor includes photographs of the Afghan region by local photographer George Pfaff, as well as paintings by Emel Sherzad, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Masooda.
The cuisine combines flavors of the Middle East and central and south Asia. The kebabs are a lot like those served in Arabic or Persian restaurants, while the daal (yellow lentils) and cardamom-flavored tea are reminiscent of Indian cuisine. Don't expect fireworks; dishes tend to be well-seasoned and tasty, but not very spicy or complex.
Most of the entrees are variations on a couple of themes: lamb or chicken, either stewed with various accompaniments or served as kebabs. The lamb and chicken kebabs ($10.95 for dinner, $10.25 at lunch) are among the best in town: big chunks of juicy, flavorful meat. The stewed lamb also is recommended, but the chicken curry ($9.75 for dinner, $7.50 at lunch) was a bit bland. So was the plain basmati rice, which accompanies most entrees; a seasoned rice pilau (pilaf) would be a great improvement.
Vegetarians have several options, including mashawa ($2.75 cup, $3.50 bowl), a hearty bean soup topped with yogurt and mint, and a vegetarian combination plate that includes your choice of eggplant in tomato sauce, spinach with leeks and spices, daal and stewed potatoes with green peas (any two for $9.25; three for $9.95).
Desserts include a very ordinary baklava ($3), a milk pudding and a rice pudding; both puddings are flavored with cardamom, pistachios and rosewater, so they taste quite similar. Beverage options include Afghan green tea with cardamom, sweetened black tea with milk and cardamom, and dogh, an unsweetened yogurt drink, plus juices, sodas, coffees and a limited selection of beers and inexpensive wines.
For years, whenever I asked my friend Thitiya, a talented Thai cook and a very picky eater, to name the best Thai restaurant in the Twin Cities, I got the same diplomatic answer: "It all depends." One place made the best pad Thai, another was tops for papaya salad, and still another had the best tom yum soup.
Press her a little harder, and she usually would add that none of the local Thai restaurants really get it right. Most of the cooks at local Thai restaurants add too much sugar, believing that is what farangs (Westerners) like.
So I was quite surprised recently when Thitiya announced that her latest discovery, Dara Thai Restaurant, is the best in the Twin Cities. Dara Thai sits in St. Paul's forlorn Minnehaha Mall. It doesn't look like much from the outside, but the interior is a notch up from the usual strip-mall ethnic eatery. The owners are Hmong, but the chef, Pit Nong, is Thai and has cooked at a top restaurant in Bangkok.
The menu, illustrated with color photos of most of the dishes (a great idea) offers all the usual Thai favorites, plus some less familiar items, such as roast duck laab salad ($8.25). Everything on the menu is priced below $10, including the whole steamed and fried tilapia ($9.95), which I recommend.
After a couple of visits to Dara, I am quite impressed. The shrimp tom yum, a meal-size soup served in a hot pot ($8.95), had just the right balance of hot and sour, and all the right ingredients: straw mushrooms, lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves and tiny but diabolical Thai hot peppers, plus generous quantities of shrimp (chicken or fish tom yum also are available).
There was a delightful freshness to the cold dishes, such as mixed salad of shrimp, squid, chicken and pork tossed with carrots, green onions, tomatoes, cucumbers and lime juice ($7.25); and soom tom ($5.95), a spicy green papaya salad with tomatoes, peppers, chopped peanuts and dried shrimp.
The crab curry ($8.95), chunks of crab tossed with red and green peppers in a spicy coconut milk base, is also recommended; extracting the crab meat from the shell is messy work, but well-rewarded. No desserts were available; the cook explained apologetically that she hadn't had time to prepare any.
-- Jeremy Iggers is at email@example.com .