From Aush to Bowlawni

Everything we try at this Afghan restaurant in North Beach is unusual and delightful

From time to time, a scrap of paper enters our lives that deserves framing (or at least temporary enshrinement by magnet on the refrigerator door). There's a flimsy little rectangle of paper on my desk right now that makes me smile every time I look at it. It begins, "1 Mantwo, 1 Bowlawni, 1 Kaddo, 1 Aush, 1 Shorwa," and I'm smiling for two reasons: I'd never heard of a mantwo, bowlawni, kaddo, aush, or shorwa before a few weeks ago, and though you might think these are nonsense words coined by Dr. Seuss or exotic animals threatened by extinction, in actuality they're singularly delicious dishes I tasted at a singularly interesting restaurant hiding in plain sight on a grungy block in North Beach.

The place is the Helmand, an unusual Afghan eatery that I chose almost by accident, and nearly at the last minute, after discovering when phoning to make a reservation that the Vietnamese restaurant on Clement that I'd intended to take a group to had apparently gone out of business. Two of my four guests were known to me (my goddaughter Anna, who eats no red meat, and her father, Jeff, who prefers straightforward food) and two were not (the cinematographer and associate producer who'd come to San Francisco with Jeff from Los Angeles to work on a documentary), and I wanted a place that was reasonable, interesting, and (you should excuse the expression) very San Francisco.

I checked my list of new restaurants I want to visit: Most seemed too expensive or too trendy (a club or lounge atmosphere just wouldn't work), and this was for dinner on a Saturday night, when many places are already booked. I called Robert and explained what I needed, and he offered up the Helmand. Food from Afghanistan sounded fine to me. I remembered meals at the long-gone Khyber Pass restaurant in Berkeley and in a few low-rent places in L.A. and the San Fernando Valley -- kebabs and rice. Everybody likes grilled meat, there'd be chicken or fish for Anna, and I could drive the visitors through North Beach and throw Chinatown and Fisherman's Wharf in for free.

Unexpected: The Helmand's elegance 
comes as a welcome surprise after its 
entrance.
Anthony Pidgeon
Unexpected: The Helmand's elegance comes as a welcome surprise after its entrance.

Details

Mantwo (beef dumplings) $4.95

Kaddo (pan-fried pumpkin) $4.95

Aush (noodle soup) $3.95

Dwopiaza (grilled lamb) $14.95

Koufta (meatball stew) $10.95

Theeka kabab (prime rib) $14.95

Feereny (pudding) $4.95

362-0641

Open for lunch Tuesday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; and for dinner Sunday through Thursday from 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m.

Reservations accepted

Wheelchair accessible

Parking: reduced rate with validation at Econo Parking, two doors west

Muni: 12, 15

Noise level: low to moderate

430 Broadway (at Kearny)

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My first surprise came on entering the restaurant from a slightly sleazy block of Broadway. The Helmand's tiny anteroom is cramped and unpromising, but it opens onto a long, narrow room with three rows of white-clothed tables that seemed soigné, warm and welcoming on that chilly night. We were led to a big round table in the back, and settled in to admire the simple but pleasant décor. At first I thought the brightly colored prints on the wall were reproductions of Victorian English paintings of Oriental exoticism, but then I realized they were photographs of modern-day Afghanistan. ("Helmand," it turns out, is the name both of Afghanistan's longest river and of the owner's first-born son.)

The second surprise was opening up the three-sectioned menu and reading the almost overwhelming list of dishes available: five appetizers that I'd never heard of (see the list above), three unfamiliar soups, 18 entrees that were new to me even when I recognized part of a name (theeka kabab, for example, is grilled prime rib marinated in a purée of onions, sun-dried baby grapes, and garlic and cooked on skewers), and a number of vegetarian dishes.

We started with the five unknown-to-us appetizers, and I was in love with the place as soon as I'd tasted them. Mantwo and bowlawni were described as being "homemade pastry shells," but in reality they were more like dumplings or ravioli. The mantwo was filled with a chopped-beef-and-onions stuffing and topped with a slightly sweet, gentle sauce of yellow split peas, carrots, and ground beef. The bowlawni were two fat dumplings, one filled with chopped leeks and scallions, the other with spiced potatoes, sided with creamy, tangy minted yogurt. We tried two fabulous soups: aush, a dark beefy broth full of chewy noodles, topped with yogurt, mint, and a dab of ground beef sauce, and shorwa, a very lamb-y broth full of long-cooked chunks of lamb and lots of fresh vegetables. My favorite dish was the kaddo, a baby pumpkin that had been pan-fried and then baked with a sprinkling of sugar until it was meltingly sweet, served on a pillow of garlicky yogurt and speckled with ground beef: an amazing combination of flavors and textures. Switch out the garlic yogurt for the minted one and lose the beef, and it would make a terrific dessert.

Or a main course, as it turned out: Anna ordered the vegetarian kaddo and banjan challow plate for her entree, and here the succulent pumpkin came sided with banjan, highly seasoned eggplant that had been pan-fried, then baked with fresh tomatoes until both were soft, served with challow rice (baked with oil and cumin seed) and dabs of the two yogurt sauces, garlicked and minted. We also feasted on two kababs, seek (charbroiled leg of lamb) and theeka (grilled prime rib), both heady with their marinade of onion purée, sun-dried baby grapes -- a raisin by another name -- and garlic, the lamb served with sautéed eggplant and pallow (aka pilaf, baked rice seasoned with cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin, and black pepper), the beef with sautéed lentils and pallow. After tasting the dwopiaza (grilled marinated lamb sautéed with yellow split peas and topped with vinegary onions, served with garlic mushrooms and pallow) and the koufta (a stew of fat ground-beef meatballs with tomatoes both fresh and sun-dried, hot peppers, and green peas, served on challow rice), Bill, the young cameraman, endeared himself to me by saying that this was one of the best restaurants he'd ever eaten in.

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