What’s a sign of a good restaurant?
We could go on all day and tomorrow trying to answer that, but I think when they chase you down the block with the leftovers you forgot on the table, it’s always a good sign.
In some cases, I don’t think it’s just courtesy that inspires a waiter run after you this way. At least it’s not at Balkh Shish Kebab House: here, I think they do it because they know their lamb is far too good to go to waste.
Balkh Shish Kebab House is where Rafiq worked during his first six months in New York after emigrating from Afghanistan. Though he’d never worked in a restaurant or made kebab before in his life, he took quickly to the work in the kitchen.
As he steered us through the mid-morning traffic on Broadway, Rafiq explained that it’s the marinating, not the grilling, that’s the secret to a great kebab. You have to let the meat rest overnight in the marinade, which is what he learned to do at Balkh, which he says is the best Afghan restaurant in New York – even better than Kabul Kebab House, if you can believe it.
At Balkh, which sits under the elevated tracks near the last stop on the N-train in Astoria, which takes its name from a northern Afghan province bordering Uzbekistan, the atmosphere seems to echo the sincerity in Rafiq’s cab: a pair of closed-circuit televisions broadcast scenes from Mecca, and the sounds of men chanting as they circle the Kaaba fill the dining room with a solemn, if soothing, soundtrack that almost cancels out the intermittent screeching of the subway outside.
Handwoven rugs and black-and-white portraits of Afghan warriors hang from the salmon-colored walls, along with a decade-old review from the New York Times (it’s a rave) and a plaque from the Village Voice declaring this New York’s Best Afghan restaurant in 2011.
When you walk into Balkh, the grill master, who stands next to a brick-lined barbecue, next to the tasseled curtains and the neon signs in the window, greets you with a ‘Salaam alaikum’ and a shy but kind waiter tells you to sit anywhere you like, even though they won’t officially open for another 15 minutes.
As you look over the menu, searching among the list of thirty meat dishes for the kebab that would best showcase the marination techniques Rafiq was telling you about, a man emerges from the kitchen, a tray of kebabs in hand, singing as he arranges them in the refrigerator next to the restaurant’s front door.
The shy but kind waiter tells you that you will like Qaw Lamb Meat — “special home made balkh shish kabab qaw made from lamb meat baked in oven special marination served with brown basmati rice, raisin and carrot” — and so you order Qaw, having no idea how enormous the portion will be, plus Manto (beef dumplings with curry sauce and yogurt).
And though you’re impressed with the delicacy of these dumplings, they’re a little neutral for your taste, even when you try to spice them up with the fiery, vinegar-laced red and green sauces the waiter brings you with a warning, and you wished you’d ordered aushack instead, especially when you read the Voice‘s description later on: “Don’t miss aushack…These supple dough purses bulge with scallions and come smothered in herbed yogurt and tomato sauce…”
The only thing you regret about ordering Qaw is that you can’t possibly eat it all. This is lamb that falls apart as soon as it touches your fork, lamb that rests on a buttery bed of basmati rice with carrots and raisins, lamb whose fat has melted into its flesh from what tastes like many hours of low, slow cooking, lamb that’s been salted to that perfect breaking point, lamb that justifies Rafiq’s claim, not to mention the bold promises on the awning above Balkh’s entrance: Here indeed is the “FINEST AFGHAN CUISINE” and “THE MOST DELICIOUS FOOD.”
Balkh Shish Kabab House
23-10 31st St, Astoria 11105
(Btwn 23rd Rd & 23rd Ave)
Open: 7 days, from 12pm
Recommended: Qaw Lamb Meat, #6 in the ‘Special Entrees’ section of the menu, which costs $15 and is plenty for two people.