A gentle haze of cumin and garlic-laden steam wafts from a tray of gulpi mounded high on the lunch buffet at Afghan Express in Gardena. The toss of cauliflower, fresh tomatoes and onion is brought to life with an earthy spice recipe inherited from the Silk Road caravan traffic that once trailed across Afghanistan. The dish, as with the other half-dozen or so Afghan specialties on the daily changing buffet, mixes Persian cooking with muted Indian flavorings, and a little of this and that from the country's Central Asian neighbors.
Owners Najeeb and Nahida Shinwari, who are brother and sister, have a campaign going to make their relatively unfamiliar cuisine accessible and to compete with the franchised food outlets that crowd their stretch of Crenshaw Boulevard across from El Camino College. They post their daily menu at facebook.com/afghanfood and will pack up buffet selections to go. They had also thought that using the term "Express" in the restaurant's name would let customers know they could eat in a hurry.
But the Shinwaris' most potent advantage in the neighborhood's food competition is their mom Laila's recipes and the impeccable hospitality of their three brothers, Eza, Maiwand and Asmat, who wait on tables and generally help out (all the family's children arrived and were educated here after their father, an Afghan journalist, gained political asylum in 1999).
Quick service may be part of the restaurant's game plan, but Afghan cooking also seems especially well designed for lingering and sharing with friends or family. Few dishes illustrate this better than the fabulous pilaf kabuli palau. A whole lamb shank braised to butter-tender submission comes buried under a tower of basmati rice dusted with cumin and cardamom. Swirled with caramelized carrot shreds and scattered with pistachios, blanched almonds and softened raisins, it is a creation long ago devised for a caliph's pleasure.
As a prelude to this extravaganza, try an appetizer order of bolani, a daintier cousin of the samosa. The thin, crackly, fried pastry sheets filled with a schmear of seasoned mashed potato get their spark from an addictive tart green chile chutney served alongside.
Then be sure to order mantu. No one in L.A. makes these chubby meat-filled dumplings like Mrs. Shinwari. The mantu, their translucent skins pinched into four-corner hat shapes, loll under three strata of brilliantly seasoned sauces that tempt you to keep the whole plate to yourself. Their garlic-laced tomato sauce is topped with a scattering of sunshine-yellow stewed pigeon peas. Then the whole construction gets a drizzle of tart yogurt swirled with sautéed dry mint that slices into the richness like a hot knife through butter.
The dining room here is as charmingly homemade as the food. Red tablecloths pop against stark white walls. Everywhere are hung enormous, slightly grainy photographs depicting cinéma vérité-like scenes of everyday Afghan life.
A cursory glance at the menu's kebab list may suggest a meat-intensive cuisine. But it's the fresh vegetables, seasoned to a point that intensifies their inherent flavor, that sets Afghan Express' handiwork apart from the quotidian kebab slingers.
Eggplant braised with tomatoes, tempered with the sweetness of onion and brightened with a swirl of celestial yogurt sauce morphs into the brilliant toor banjan. Spinach and potatoes get a Cinderella-like transformation when they're lightly sauteed with garlic for a sumptuous stew, while saucy red kidney beans simmered just until they're al dente make the perfect match for snowy basmati rice.
Often, there'll be a sign behind the cash register announcing a vegetarian combination meal. Even hard-core carnivores may not want to pass it up.
It's rumored that the best Afghan cooking can be had only in private homes. Maybe that's true in Afghanistan. But in L.A., from-scratch home cooking comes with a huge helping of hospitality at a small semi-fast-food restaurant on Crenshaw.
LOCATION: 15900 Crenshaw Blvd., No. C, Gardena, (310) 329-0101
PRICES: Bolani, $2.99; entrees with salad and bread, $9.99 to $11.99; vegetable dishes, $6.99; lunch buffet, $6.99.
DETAILS: Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday. Lot parking. Credit cards accepted.