"Zang": cryptic and alien, a Melrose name for sure. It sounds as if it has to be connected with the shop across the street called Pang. As a restaurant, Zang even looks sort of like a Melrose boutique, with its walls covered with exotic lutes made out of wood and leather and tin cans.
A pretty mysterious place to eat a burger. At 5 p.m. though, Zang closes as a diner and when it reopens at 6, everything becomes clear. The awning out front now reads "Cuisine of Afghanistan," and the sound track has gone from K-RTH rock to the surprisingly dreamy, melancholy sounds that Afghan musicians coax out of their funky-looking instruments.
In its daytime role as a Melrose-American diner, Zang is about OK. It's the kind of place where you can get nachos verdaderos and clean-tasting burgers with sprouts and spiral-cut french fries, but the salads tend to be soggy because the lettuce hasn't been drained. The Afghan dinner menu is a lot more likely to bring you in, unless you're already walking around on Melrose and dying for a burger.
At first, the cuisine of Afghanistan seems like a cross between Indian and Near Eastern food, but that happens to be an illusion. Apart from chutney and the occasional curry, what looks Indian to us usually turns out to be dishes that India's many Muslim conquerors brought in from the Near East--by way of Afghanistan, the traditional invasion point. Actually, it's Punjabi food--what we usually think of as Indian food--that's a mixture of Indian and Near Eastern influences.
However, Afghan food is somewhat more distinctive than you might gather from this particular menu, which oddly doesn't list any of Afghanistan's unusual pasta dishes: the ravioli stuffed with fried leeks, the lamb "lasagne" and so on. Basically, what we have here is a lot of kabobs and some stews and pilafs.
Good kabobs, mind you. The lola kabob is the usual Near Eastern idea of ground meat flavored with onions and parsley, plus in this case a good slug of cumin. Teka kabob is a skewer of nice tender beef filet, and there are pleasant kabobs of lamb chop (bone included) and chicken. The most unusual is karai kabob, where the filet--powerfully marinated in garlic first--is grilled and then sauteed with tomatoes, onions and peppers and topped with a fried egg.
Like a lot of Afghan dishes, karai kabob is substantial and warming, cold-weather food. The best example of this warming quality, though, is the delicious mashawa, more or less the national soup of Afghanistan. It's meatballs and various sorts of beans floating around in a rich, yogurt-flavored gravy tantalizingly perfumed with some mysterious herb.
The rest of the menu is rich and mild stews. Sabzi is a buttery puree of spinach, a vegetarian dish in itself that can be enriched with cumin-flavored ground beef at no extra charge. Burani bonjan is something like eggplant parmigiana, stewed eggplant slices in a mildly peppery sweet tomato sauce with yogurt on the side. Chicken korma is a simple dish of chicken in a rich oniony sauce--more or less a curry without the spices. Kabili pilaw, the traditional Afghan party dish, seems a lot like fried rice with meat and raisins. It's made with good aromatic rice, though.
Afghans don't eat a dessert course, and so the dessert menu is a little schizophrenic. Basically, you have a choice of baklava or Tahitian Sorbet, and I've even had homemade pumpkin pie. Go for the baklava, I say.
Zang, 7612 1/2 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 651-4157. Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. Open Sunday for lunch. No alcoholic beverages. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $15 to $24.