Walk into Kandahar Afghan Kitchen, the newish Afghan restaurant on 36th Street in Hampden, and you’ll find yourself heading straight for the counter. Because although there are many well-appointed tables between the front door of the restaurant and that counter, what you’re drawn to first is the low wall of baklava, stacked like Tetris in front of the open kitchen.
The golden squares—sheets of phyllo layered with pulverized pistachios and walnuts and doused with honey—are made in-house, secured in containers, then built into a small fortress beside the register, maybe to remind you that you can take extra home after dinner. You will want to.
Baltimoreans are probably more familiar with the cuisine of Afghanistan than most citydwellers, thanks to The Helmand, the much-loved Afghan restaurant in Mt. Vernon that’s been run by the Karzai family for nearly 40 years. It is also thanks to The Helmand that we now have Kandahar, as its chef and owner, Assad Akbari, was the head chef there for most of those decades. Akbari began cooking at The Helmand when it first opened in Chicago, then moved to Baltimore when the Karzais moved here and relocated their restaurant in 1989.
Both Akbari and his brother, Sadiq, who was for years a server at The Helmand and is now Kandahar’s GM, left the Mt. Vernon restaurant in 2020 as a consequence of the pandemic.
“I always wanted to open my own restaurant,” says Akbari, sitting at one of his own tables while taking a break from cooking on a recent afternoon.
Above him, a traditional Afghan village dress given to him by his daughter hangs on the wall, its fuchsia fabric fanned out like an accordion. A series of embroidered regional caps bedecks a wall like a deconstructed hat rack. A gorgeous black-and-red rug, one of Akbari’s own, adorns another section.
The dishes that come to the tables are as much works of art as what’s on the walls: the triangular ravioli called aushak, embedded with leeks and scallions then topped with a rich beef-and-tomato sauce and a drizzle of yogurt; kadoo, made of bright copper-colored slices of pumpkin bathed in pale garlicked yogurt.
Though the menu is large, one dish you should absolutely order is the Kabuli pallow, an ornate presentation of long-cooked lamb beneath a dome of spiced rice pilaf, plumped raisins, and a bright thatch of julienned carrots. “It’s the national dish of Afghanistan,” says Akbari. “If you want to treat your guests in a special way, you cook that dish for them.” Reminiscent of an Indian biryani but with the tender meat hidden inside, it’s so good you’ll immediately understand why it’s the centerpiece of feasts and celebrations.
The cooking is subtle—Afghan cuisine is flavorful but not spicy, boosted by pickles and soothed by yogurt—and hinges on deft combinations and excellent sourcing. Kandahar’s lamb and beef are sourced from Old Line Custom Meat Co., while the pumpkins for the kadoo as well as the turnips for the shalgham that accompanies many plates are from Sharp’s, a 120-year-old farm in Howard County that Akbari visits twice a week.
Much of the menu traces to Akbari’s grandmother’s recipes, brought to this country from Kandahar, which is both the name of the restaurant and the family’s hometown in southern Afghanistan.
“I always loved Hampden; to me it’s like a small Afghan village,” says Akbari, who opened Kandahar in March 2022 after transforming the location, which was previously a furniture store.
The BYOB restaurant is one big dining room leading to that baklava-loaded counter, which in turn gives way to a shelf lined with jars of brightly colored pickled vegetables that fronts the open kitchen where Akbari and his small staff cook everything, including all those aushak; the mantu, or dumplings; the naan that goes out to every table; the soups and kabobs; and the baklava.
Even if you’re well-versed in the various dishes, the menu can be daunting. So the best thing to do is to bring a group, secure a big table, return the menus, and instead follow Sadiq’s advice to order a “family-style” meal. (A bargain at $45 per person.) This means that your table will soon be filled with all the appetizers—the kadoo, aushak, and mantu, plus two eggplant dishes, as well as fried triangles stuffed with potatoes and leeks and garnished with more yogurt sauce—before a round of entrees appears.
In our case this meant, of course, Kabuli pallow, then lamb chops, kabobs, stewed chicken, sauced salmon with more seasoned rice, sabzi, a succulent cooked spinach side, and a basket of just-baked naan that somehow kept refilling.
When we couldn’t eat anything more, Sadiq presented us with small bowls of pale Afghan ice cream, cardamom-infused vanilla studded with chopped dates and figs. Did we eat more? We did. And baklava, by the way, is splendid for breakfast.
KANDAHAR AFGHAN KITCHEN: 914 W. 36th St., Hampden, 667-205-1681. HOURS: Tues.-Fri. 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Sat.-Sun. Noon-9 p.m. PRICES: Appetizers, soups, salads: $5.50-10.95; mains: $11.95-28.95; desserts: $5.50. AMBIANCE: Arty and minimalist.