We cruised the menu inside the well-decorated but dated dining room of the Bamiyan Afghan restaurant in Citrus Heights, when something occurred to us. As applied to this restaurant, there’s a missing link between the two phrases, “Cook it and they will come” and “Location, location, location.”
Sure, they cooked it and we came, but the location is ... well, strange. The cuisine is so unique that a few bites will bring the adventurous (and vegetarian) diner back, with friends. But the restaurant resides in the bleak Greenback Plaza and is pretty much invisible unless you’re looking for it. Weeds grow in the cracks of the massive (and empty) parking lot that fronts a stretch of Greenback Lane that’s more in need of a fix than the W-X Freeway.
In this context, Bamiyan is a welcome oasis where hypnotic music plays quietly in the background and patrons can be overheard saying things like, “This lamb is perfect!” Still, it’s the only restaurant we’ve visited that requires maneuvering a cement stairway to get in the front door.
Mousa Amiri co-owns two Bamiyan restaurants with his wife, Najia Amiri, and his brother, Kareen Amiri. The other Bamiyan is in El Dorado Hills, reviewed in this column five years ago. The Amiris and other family members share cooking duties, assembling authentic dishes from Mousa Amiri’s mother’s recipes.
As for history, Mousa Amiri and his mother opened the first Afghan restaurant in New England, in 1989, which still is going strong. “When we moved to California, we gave the Shish Kebab House (in Connecticut) to my sister,” he said. “It was our legacy there.”
Afghan cuisine was influenced by the cultures of several countries when trade flourished along the ancient Silk Road, the 4,000-mile-long international route that linked China and the Mediterranean. So it was fitting when Mousa Amiri referred to one of Bamiyan’s most popular dishes, ashak, as “Afghan ravioli.” The two dishes are similar in concept.
Heat is not the point of Afghan cuisine, as it is in Indian curries and some fiery Thai dishes. Seasonings are ubiquitous but more subtle, with a set of flavors and textures derived from coriander (cilantro), cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, cumin, black and red pepper, garlic, mint and more, often topped with thick yogurt.
The menus at both Bamiyans are the same, showing appetizers, salads, meat and seafood dishes, “sultan’s dinners for rice lovers” (with meatballs, chicken, fish and more) and many vegetarian items.
Over two visits we sampled a number of dishes that ranged from excellent to OK – leg of lamb shish kebab (tender marinated and charbroiled chunks); chicken shish kebab (ditto); non-cloying pumpkin purée (we’ll try the eggplant version next time); noodle soup (thin noodles in mild broth with beef, bell pepper, carrot, tomato); ashak (tender dumplings stuffed with scallion and spinach, topped with seasoned ground beef and yellow lentil-like peas and yogurt-garlic-mint sauce); a beet-topped salad with too much astringent lemon dressing; tasty sautéed mushrooms that got lost in too many onions; and fragrant rice made rich with spinach, cumin seeds and cloves.
Baskets of naan-e-tawagy, a flat bread that’s sort of a cross between pita and Indian tandoori naan, vanished quickly, mostly because of the accompanying dipping sauce. It’s a melange of pomegranate, sherry, honey, olive oil, garlic, cinnamon, coriander, black pepper and more. It was so good we poured it over nearly everything that came to the table.
Thick Turkish-style coffee went well with homemade baklava topped with ground pistachio nuts – a not-too-sweet revelation of flavor and texture.
As one dinner pal said, “Who wouldn’t want to explore this menu? It’s so full of surprises.”
P.S.: The restaurant’s menus and business cards show a photograph of a disintegrating statue of Buddha. It was one of two colossal icons in Bamiyan Valley, an antediluvian province in Afghanistan. They were carved into the cliffs between the second and fourth centuries A.D. The site was a shrine and once the home of thousands of Buddhist monks.
The priceless titans were dynamited to bits by the Taliban in March 2001. The reason for the atrocity: They were “un-Islamic.” The name of the restaurant is dedicated to the memory of those statues.
A Rocklin find
Passing through Rocklin on the way to Vaneli’s coffee company ( www.vanelis.com), we pulled into what looked like a used-truck lot and found our way to a booth inside Granite Rock Grill. Its motto: “A little bit country, a little bit Rocklin-roll.” It’s a cavernous, curiously decorated room where the servers know the regulars and where both breakfast and lunch are available all day.
The menu is massive. One house specialty is country-fried steak — a pounded-out cube steak double-dipped in egg and seasoned flour and pan-fried. It’s hot and crisp (and a little salty), with great chew. It’s served with tasty sausage gravy, two eggs, potatoes, and a biscuit or toast ($13). Go there hungry, especially if you go overboard with a side order of outrageously good hand-cut onion rings.
On a previous visit, co-owner Rich Gardner (with wife Kay), said, “We make just about everything from scratch. I do everything the old-fashioned way.” Three cheers for real cooking.