Afghan Kabab Express, 305 Central Ave., Albany, 487-4159. Serving daily 11-10. AE, D, MC, V.
Entrée price range: $5.49 (cheeseburger) to $14 (lamb chop)
Ambiance: very casual
Afghan fare has eased in and out of our region over the years, with a couple of brief successes in Latham and Schenectady. But neither fine dining nor the buffet approach seems to have been enough to sustain such a restaurant.
Albany’s Afghan Kabab Express is a casual-dining eatery situated in a not-quite-downtown stretch of Central Avenue. It’s almost always open and it offers a cheap and varied enough menu to make it a mainstay. And the food is very good.
Open for just over two years, the family-run restaurant boasts a large dining area split in two by an Oriental-motif divider, which reflects the heritage of its space. It’s in a small indoor complex originally named the Chinatown Mall, rechristened the Central Mall as its tenantry moved in more Occidental directions—or moved out.
A counter by the entry sports a display of pastries, encouraging you to start your visit with a look at the potential finish. The menu is conveniently brief (and helpfully photo-illustrated), dominated by sandwiches and kabab platters. Should you have a friend in tow who is unshakeably fearful of foreign food, the menu also offers chicken wings (6 for $4), a cheeseburger ($5.49) and a Philly cheesesteak ($7.49).
But there are much more suitable sandwiches. A chicken or lamb gyro is $6, the latter described as “Manhattan style, with special white sauce and hot sauce.” We sampled the chicken variety, ordered by a dining companion who eschews any manner of hot sauce (yet remains my spouse), but she was generous with the mayonnaise-based white sauce.
The sandwich itself is rolled in a large pita circlet, dressed with lettuce and tomato and onion, pre-sauced but open for more, which is provided. The flavor of the meat is ramped up thanks to a marinade and a trip across the grill, and the flavor of the sandwich as a whole has some heat peeking through, enough to grab my wife’s attention but not enough to dismay her. And $6 is an incredible bargain for a sandwich like this.
Likewise with the falafel pita ($7), in which a half-dozen or so fried chickpea patties nestle in the veggie nest. Good falafel is one of the finest of snacks; worked into a lunch or dinner item like this, it’s surprisingly satisfying. (I have a friend who admitted that, while traveling through the Middle East many years ago, he consumed a steady diet of falafel all the while believing that it was meat.)
To make a multi-course dinner out of your meal, start with an appetizer like bolani (a cousin to na’an, stuffed with potato and scallion, $3) or dolmeh (stuffed grape leaves, $3). I went to the list of side dishes for a starter, and enjoyed a dish of badenjan ($4), which are aromatically spiced eggplant slices, sautéed into submission, decorated with yogurt. The eggplant flavor is a good complement to the seasonings, all of which heads to the sweet side—and thus makes a good complement to a dinner item. Which, I suppose, only confirms its proper place as a side dish rather than starter.
Not that it mattered: Our items, ordered in courses, arrived more or less at once. Which is a good time to note that service, both times I’ve visited, was lackadaisical despite customer sparseness. Both times I noticed a brisk takeout business, which meant that the phone rang frequently and the pickups had to be cashed out—which ties up the few who work the floor.
Platters include chicken, falafel or beef-and-lamb gyro meat over rice ($7), served with a (very small) salad and a slice of flatbread. Fried tilapia is available over rice or with fries for $8, the latter making it an economical version of fish and chips. But you want to head to the kabab platters. That’s why you’re here.
Lamb kabab ($11), which I enjoyed during a previous visit, had a delicious flavor thanks to the rich marinade—and the meat was impressively tender. Beef kabab ($9) is described as “large pieces [of] filet mignon marinated in our special sauce,” but we know it’s not truly filet mignon. You can’t sell that cut for nine bucks. It turns out to be some manner of round, marinated enough to add flavor but not long enough to un-toughen it, so I had some very chewy slices in front of me.
The balance of meat and basmati rice was good, and the extra sauces—including some ferociously hot stuff—at least made the drawn-out experience of chewing that much tastier.
Other kabab platter options are chicken ($9) and a ground-beef/ground-lamb combo called koobideh ($9). Platters also are available with lamb shanks ($13) and chops ($14). Shrimp or tilapia kabab is $9.
Drink options are sodas, juices, coffee, tea and a yogurt drink called doogh. Desserts include baklava ($3) and an assortment of variously priced Persian pastries.
All meat is halal. Catering platters are available.
This stretch of Central Avenue, around Quail Street, has been sneaking up on us with a variety of ethnic offerings, and the owners of Afghan Kabab House credit their current success to a neighborhood that welcomes such variety. It’s not an inviting-looking area, and parking is always a challenge, but I’m very happy to see Afghan fare hanging on in the Capital Region. It’s terrific food. It’s a terrific bargain.