Well into its seventh year in Scripps Ranch, Ariana Kabob House shares a colorless strip mall with the usual suspects: a Pizza Hut, a donut shop and a smattering of medical offices. But unlike its fast-food neighbors, the Afghan restaurant offers home-cooked fare in a dining room outfitted with green-cushioned chairs, potted plants, a giant painting of turbaned horsemen and a grandfather clock.
Complete with carpeted floors, the family-run eatery (9910 Mira Mesa Blvd.) feels like a hotel banquet room, the kind of place where you might spot a lightly perfumed flock of well-dressed women chattering over afternoon tea. Nevertheless, no other patrons showed up during my visit. It's probably because I arrived between 5 and 6 p.m.—that quiet slip of time that's too late for lunch and, for some, too early for dinner.
Lucky for me, though, this meant that owner Wahid Maher—a mustachioed man who emerged from the back kitchen in a well-worn red apron—could spend a few good minutes elaborating on Ariana's diverse menu. As Wahid noted, Afghanistan is completely landlocked, bordered by China, Pakistan, Iran and the Central Asian states of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
The country's cuisine, therefore, reflects its unique geographical positioning. The Afghan aush, for instance, is a noodle and vegetable soup closely related to the Iranian asheh resheth. There are also mantu, or steamed dumplings stuffed with minced beef, that resemble the Chinese jiaozi. The tomato-and-yogurt mixture blanketing the mantu brings to mind India's dahi vada, a popular street food featuring deep-fried dumplings soaked in yogurt.
The sambosas served at Ariana Kabob House are a cross between Indian samosas and Chinese wontons. Flat and triangular, they arrive four to a plate. Compared with samosas, which are chubby and uneven and loaded with ingredients, the sambosas might seem scrawny and incomplete at first. But their brittle, crunchy edges will win you over. A mild beef-and-chickpea mash creates the filling; dunk the chip-like pastry into cilantro chutney for a quick hit of heat. The light and flavorsome appetizer provides a delicious entry point into the rest of Ariana's menu.
Served beside a heap of long-grain white rice, the chicken curry is hearty and unembellished. A homemade curry sauce studded with green peas envelops tender chicken pieces, which range from small bits to large hunks. Free of fancy add-ons, Ariana's curry is unpretentious and delectable—a weighty reminder of why homemade cooking is on a level all its own.
The mantu, though, are the instant favorite. Aside from being visually luscious, the steamed dumplings represent an intersection of Chinese, Indian and Russian cuisines. While the minced beef filling tastes immediately familiar, the vibrant yogurt, tomato and lentil blend capping the creation is an unexpected addition. To me, the mantu exemplifies the excitement of Afghan cuisine.
On my way out, I asked Wahid whether he's also the chef.
"No," he said, "the chef is my boss."
Seeing my confused expression, he quickly added, "My wife is the boss."
If that doesn't point to a beautiful partnership, I don't know what does.