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When in Fremont, Eat as the Afghans Do

Bolani by the pizza boxful and the best kebabs in the Bay.

SLIDESHOW

Kebabs on the grill at Fremont Afghan Kabob.

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Fremont Afghan Kabob’s pakaura, or batter-fried potatoes.

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The dining room at Salang Pass.

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Maiwand Market features a well-stocked butcher counter.

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Maiwand has the freshest handmade Afghan bread in town.

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Perhaps the tastiest kebab plate in the Bay Area, courtesy of De Afghanan Kabob House.

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Years before its proximity to Silicon Valley made it one of the East Bay’s most desirable places to live—before the Warm Springs BART station opened and median home prices crept close to a cool million—Fremont was famous for at least one thing: fantastic Afghan food. How that came to be is, like so many American food stories, mostly an immigration story. Rona Popal, executive director of the Fremont-based nonprofit Afghan Coalition, explains that Afghan refugees started settling in Fremont en masse during the ’80s because housing was cheap and because some had heard the weather was similar to Kabul’s. Then, in the wake of 9/11, the national media turned its eye toward the city’s unusually large concentration of Afghan Americans, coining the term “Little Kabul” to describe an understated stretch of the Centerville neighborhood where the citrusy scent of sumac wafts in the air and, if you know where to look, you’ll find what will likely be the best kebabs you’ve ever eaten.

Like many of the Bay Area’s immigrant enclaves, Fremont’s Afghan Americans are increasingly getting priced out, many of them moving farther afield to cities like Sacramento and Tracy, Popal says. In fact, Fremont’s De Afghanan Kabob House—perhaps the most famous Afghan restaurant in the United States—opened a new branch in Tracy in 2015. At least for now, co-owner Aziz Omar spends more time there than he does in Fremont.

So it goes. Maybe in four or five years, Bay Area kebab lovers will have to drive to Tracy to find destination-worthy grilled meat on a stick. But for now, Fremont is still the king. It might be time to plan a trip.


Masters of Meat

Omar opened the original Fremont location of ❶ De Afghanan Kabob House (37405 Fremont Blvd.) 25 years ago inside the facade of a now-defunct movie theater specializing in Bollywood films. In terms of atmospherics, it’s tough to beat—something about the no-frills menu, the cramped tables, and the sight and smell of the meats grilling practically out on the sidewalk. Next door, De Afghanan Cuisine (37395 Fremont Blvd.) serves a larger menu in a slightly better-appointed setting. Both Fremont locations belong at the forefront of any discussion of the best kebab cookery in the Bay Area. The most difficult decision is choosing between the chapli kebab ($13.99)—a kind of flattened, crisp-edged burger patty that’s loaded with scallions and chili flakes—and the lamb kebab ($18.99), which arrives encrusted with the kind of charred bits that you get only from charcoal grilling. Both are served piping hot and right on the edge of too salty, which makes them perfect for eating with loads of rice and the vinegary, chickpea-studded potato salad that comes with every kebab plate (make sure you ask for it if they forget). A liberal dose of housemade green chatni, a cilantro-based hot sauce that’s more zippy than fiery, helps cut into the saltiness and richness of the meat.

De Afghanan’s other chief selling point is its bolani ($7.99/$11.99), a griddled flatbread that’s most commonly stuffed with potato, but also sometimes with Afghan leeks or shredded butternut squash. The squash version, whose filling is more savory than sweet, is particularly choice. Eat it right away before its outer edges lose their crispness.


An Elegant Alternative

Across the street, Salang Pass (37462 Fremont Blvd.) boasts a slightly more formal, tapestry-bedecked dining room and nearly as long a history as De Afghanan. The kebabs are good, but the standouts are a handful of other classic Afghan dishes. The wrappers on the mantoo ($9.95), or meat-filled dumplings, are especially delicate here, as is chef and co-owner Zarmina Wahid’s version of borani kadoo ($11.99), a dish in which chunks of butternut squash are first sautéed, then steamed, then topped with garlicky yogurt. And Wahid’s firni ($4.50), or rose water–scented rice custard, is a contender for the best dessert in town—as jiggly and satisfyingly creamy as the finest just-set panna cotta.


Market Days

Restaurants aside, Fremont’s numerous Afghan markets are also worth visiting for the gallon jugs of drinking yogurt, the halal-friendly sweets, the olives sold in cans as large as a child’s head, and, most notably, the stacks of Afghan bread, each sesame seed–flecked loaf as long as a scroll of Moses (or, well, three feet, give or take). ❸ Khorasan Market (38731 Fremont Blvd.) is worth the short drive down Fremont Boulevard for the jalebi alone: Deep-fried and soaked in a sugary syrup, the golden-hued treat ($6.99/pound) is the South Asian and Middle Eastern answer to funnel cake. ❹ Maiwand Market (37235 Fremont Blvd.) is the largest, and also the liveliest and most atmospheric, of the markets. They all feature halal butcher sections stocked with goat and lamb (often including off cuts like the feet and tongue). But only at Maiwand can you watch a dapper gentleman butcher—hair slicked back, mustache well-groomed, white coat immaculate—split chicken breasts on an antique butcher block. Maiwand also has what is far and away the best Afghan bread, in large part because it’s baked fresh in big double-decker pizza ovens all through the day. A single $2 loaf is probably more bread than your average family of four can get through in a couple of days, but you’ll see Afghan customers buying six or seven loaves at a time. Co-owner Wais Karimi says there’s a simple secret: If you cut the bread into toaster-size pieces and freeze it, it’ll keep for six months.


Strip Mall Treasures

Fremont’s “Little Kabul” descriptor is a bit of a misnomer if you’re expecting a dense concentration of shops in one clearly defined, walkable neighborhood. In fact, many of the city’s Afghan markets and restaurants are scattered in shopping plazas far off the main drag of Fremont Boulevard. ❺ Balkh Bakery and Deli (32730 Alvarado Blvd.), for example, is the rare storefront specializing in both French pastries and Afghan bolani—the latter packed into giant pizza boxes for to-go customers. The leek bolani ($10.99) is very leek intensive—for squeaky-allium lovers only—and not quite as delicious as De Afghanan’s exemplary version. But the portions alone will be a shock to the system for San Franciscans used to dainty appetizer-size bolani.

One of the city’s newer Afghan eateries, ❻ Fremont Afghan Kabob (5379 Mowry Ave.), makes surprisingly spicy interpretations of standard dishes like chapli kebab and steamed pumpkin. If you’re going to take a detour from the Maiwand–De Afghanan nexus of deliciousness, let it be for the restaurant’s pakaura ($5.99), which are a cousin to Indian pakora and look like slipper-shaped, deep-fried potato skins. Flecked with cumin and shatteringly crisp, they’re a great vehicle for tangy green chatni. They’ll give the best hot-from-the-fryer potato chips you’ve ever eaten a run for their money.

  

Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco 

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