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O. C. LIVE | RESTAURANT REVIEW

At Arya, There's Always Room for Chelo Kebobs

May 09, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

STANTON — I visited Kabul, Afghanistan, during the late 1960s, and my memories are pleasantly hazy: the scents in the dusty bazaars, visions of blazing red and burnt-saffron carpets and the flavors of the sensuous Afghani cuisine, a skillful blend of meat, fruit and spices.

Arya, in a strip mall on Beach Boulevard in Stanton, is a storefront restaurant advertising "fine Afghan cuisine." Attached to the restaurant is a place called Stop By Burger, a corner property and the more noticeable of the two businesses. Arya's windows are smoked glass, making it impossible to see inside from the parking lot. Both establishments are owned by the same Afghan couple, though: Abdul and Shalah Rauf.

Afghani cooking is related though not identical to Persian food. This is especially so among those Afghans--such as our hosts here--who speak Dari, the Persian dialect spoken in Afghanistan ("local" is what the word "dari" means) that is very close to the Persian spoken in Iran.

Should you enter Arya through the burger joint, you'll probably catch sight of a recipe for Iranian-style chelo kebab from The Times' own Food section, pasted to the counter wall. Don't leave the building without trying a plateful of the stuff.

You can actually have your chelo kebab, or any of Arya's Afghani dishes, served to you in the burger joint, if that is your wish. But I advise stepping through the bead curtain into Arya proper, where the walls are festooned with hand-woven rugs, there are glass-topped tables and food can be ordered from a waiter.

Along with the kebabs that are popular throughout the Middle East, Arya specializes in a slew of distinctive Afghani dishes such as sabzi chalaw, mantu, bolani, qabili palaw and sambosa. None of them reminds me especially of Persian dishes, even though the backbone of Arya's menu is grilled meat and rice, as it is in nearly all of our Persian restaurants.

For a hearty meal, begin with mantu, a plate of little open pasta boats brimming with spiced ground meat. You'll get around a dozen for only $5.95, all drizzled with sour cream and served with homemade green and red chile paste.

When I had this dish recently at a San Francisco restaurant called the Helmand, it was made with stripes of sour cream and the two chile sauces laid across the mantu like the colors of the Italian flag. Rauf will serve the dish in that traditional way on request, but by default he puts the sauces on the side because some of his customers told him they made the mantu too spicy.

*

Ash is Persian for "soup," but the Afghani ash served here is quite different from the ash-e reshteh you'd find in a Persian restaurant. Whereas that rather heavy soup tends to be green and redolent of herbs, this is a more austere and even more filling soup, loaded with wispy, translucent noodles and garbanzos, topped off with a float of dried herbs and sour cream at the bowl's surface.

Some of the appetizers, such as sambosa and bolani, are filling too. Sambosa is a triangular pastry with a piquant mashed potato center, much like the samosa in any Indian restaurant. The principal difference is that the pastry wrapper is fashioned from thin, oily strudel leaves. Indian samosas usually have a thick, floury crust.

The menu describes bolani as an Afghani calzone. The description is cute, but far from accurate. Bolani is a round, oily pancake-flat bread with a filling based on leeks, potatoes, yogurt and mint. Cut it into wedges as you would a pizza and decorate it with a dab or two of chile sauce, which does wonders for it.

Eggplant gets its due at appetizer time with banjan bolani, the Afghan version of a dish eaten throughout Central Asia. This is grilled eggplant in a thickened yogurt sauce. The Afghanis insist theirs is smokier than its Persian counterpart; who am I to argue?

Now you're ready for the wonderful lamb kebab. The Raufs marinate their meat in yogurt, pomegranate juice and ground coriander, resulting in what might be the county's best lamb dish. You get five or six pieces, bone in, served on a long mound of fluffy basmati rice (some grains flavored with saffron) flanked by grilled tomatoes and peppers. It's a faultless version.

Other kebabs on this menu include a juicy chicken kebab, a kubideh (seasoned ground beef formed into long cylinders on a skewer) and a beef shish kebab. All the meats are marinated in various ways and flame broiled for serving with incredible amounts of rice.

Two specifically Afghani main dishes are qabili palaw and sabzi chalaw. Qabili palaw is an amber-colored pilaf crowned with raisins, shredded carrots and pieces of stewed lamb. Sabzi chalaw combines rice pilaf with finely chopped spinach that has been steamed with spices and sauteed in hot oil, the whole thing garnished with cubes of stewed beef.

The best of the desserts--all light and scented with rose water--is probably jilaabi, the local cousin of the Iranian zulbia or the Indian jilebi. It's a coiled fritter, like big honey-filled noodle; it looks like something they use for warding off mosquitoes in Minnesota.

Shirpayra is a ringer for the Indian milk fudge named barfi, topped with crushed pistachio and walnut. There's baklava as well, a dense dessert flavored with rose water. This Stanton storefront may not transport you to the Khyber Pass, but it's about as exotic a dining experience as North County provides.

Arya is inexpensive. Appetizers are $1.95 to $4.50. Entrees are $6.95 to $10.95. Desserts are $1.75.

* ARYA

* 10330 Beach Blvd., Stanton.

* (714) 821-0627.

* Open Wednesday-Monday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Closed Tuesday.

* MasterCard and Visa.

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