Once upon a time, I lived in New York City—that lovely, messy town where food trucks reign supreme. The city teems with them, and my friends and I established a sort of game around the hardest-to-find mobile-food outposts.
One morning, in the wee hours, a friend and I stumbled on a truck we hadn't tried. It had no name, no signs, no prices listed. We asked the bearded man behind the window to give us whatever he thought best and waited in the cold until he produced two steaming mounds of rice, vegetables and meat, heaped upon flimsy Styrofoam plates we worried would buckle as soon as he handed them to us. The food—my first taste of Afghan cuisine—was warm, hearty, savory and spicy in all the best ways. We thanked the food-truck driver and continued on our way, never (despite our best efforts) to find it again.
But the experience stuck with me, so when I heard that Santa Fe had skipped all the usual ethnic-food themes—Korean barbecue, Ethiopian, Brazilian, etc.—and gone straight to Afghan eats, I was elated.
"Everybody was asking [for] this type of food, and [they] know we are from Afghanistan, so they were asking if I could open a restaurant," says Ismail Momeni, the owner of Istalif Cuisine, which opened in October. The restaurant, tucked in a below-ground space just off the Plaza (where Sleeping Dog Tavern used to be), is quiet and colorful, adorned with Persian rugs and brightly cushioned chairs.
While Momeni is Afghani, the chef is Persian, so the menu offers specialties from both culinary traditions.
On a recent weekday, SFR went for an early lunch and found an almost-deserted restaurant. (More customers eventually appeared.) This earned us the near undivided attention of the restaurant's manager, Fidel Saidi, who was consistently attentive without being overbearing. Tea—green, black or herbal—is served in the Persian way, in a large silver pot poured into glass goblets. Although the restaurant doesn't serve alcohol, tea proved the perfect accompaniment to our sumptuous meal.
Generous servings of hummus and pita come gratis, as appetizers (and with Saidi eager to refill the bread basket, we could have been full by the time we actually ordered).
We ordered from Persia first, enjoying a huge and refreshing Shirazi salad ($4.95)—chopped cucumbers, tomatoes and red onion lightly dressed with lemon, olive oil, mint and parsley.
For entrées, we traveled to Afghanistan to sample Istalif's kebabs, which are marinated in "special sauce" and then charbroiled. Kebab plates, which include chicken, various cuts of beef, lamb and Cornish game hen, range from $14-$22.99 and are served with a heaping pile of saffron-dusted basmati rice, plus a roasted tomato and (for the New Mexican touch) a roasted green chile. In general, the food is basic and unadorned; the absence of fancy garnishes and buttery sauces lends it a taste of refreshing wholesomeness.
Several other, more mainstream Mediterranean options also grace the menu, such as falafel ($12.99) and dal served with rice ($12.99).
One exception is the bolani—a traditional Afghan flatbread stuffed with vegetables and deep-fried. If the deliciously juicy texture isn't enough, it's served with a creamy cucumber-yogurt sauce—all of which is, like much of the menu, vegetarian-friendly.
Desserts range from classics like baklava ($3) and dates ($3) to the harder-to-find shirpera, a fudgelike, melt-in-your-mouth Afghan sweet made of milk, pistachios and almonds.
In the end, we consumed a veritable feast. Ordering an entrée each proved both pricey and unnecessary: We easily could have shared, or ordered more items from the more affordable appetizer or vegetarian menus. But the ambience was warm and welcoming; the food was comforting yet restoratively healthy; and a bottomless pot of black tea ($4.99) enabled us to sidestep the inevitable food coma.
So, lest your impression of Afghanistan be confined to a long-ass war, give Istalif Cuisine a try. Even if you go just for tea and baklava, Momeni and his crew will welcome you—for, when SFR asked him what message he'd like delivered to prospective customers, he promptly replied, "Bring us some business!"