No one would dispute the Mission burrito’s status as an iconic, quintessential Bay Area food. But in case you needed further evidence, consider the many tortilla-wrapped spinoffs that our region’s multicultural food communities have wrought: Here in the Bay, we have Mexipino sisig burritos. We have kati roll-esque Indian burritos stuffed full of saag paneer or chicken tikka masala. Vegan barbecue burritos (aka “barbequitos”). Korean burritos layered with gochujang and kimchi.
The latest trendsetter? West Berkeley’s Afghan Burrito, whose namesake specialty comes generously stuffed with kebab-inspired chicken or steak, rice, beans and — crucially — a signature “Golden Sauce” so top-secret that co-owners Khalid Popal and Hani Kharufeh are reluctant to tell me any of its ingredients. (“There’s water,” Kharufeh conceded the third time I asked the question.)
This is a tasty, well-constructed burrito by any measure: The meat has that satisfying kiss of smoke you only get from grilling over a live fire; the beans are toothsome; the rice is well seasoned. But the sauce is what sets the burrito apart, giving it a slightly sweet, buttery richness (though it’s not made with butter) and a flavor profile loosely reminiscent of something you might find at one of New York City’s famed halal chicken carts.
Wrapped in eye-catching gold foil, the burritos are delicious enough, and aesthetically pleasing enough, to become the Bay Area food scene’s next big thing.
But according to the restaurant’s founders, the Afghan burrito actually has a long history in the East Bay, going back at least 30 years. That’s when Popal’s uncle, Kabir Nejat, invented it for his own restaurant, the Hot Shop in Albany, which sells a similar style of burrito to this day, just two miles up San Pablo Avenue. Nejat is the one who created the now-famous golden sauce and then sold the recipe to Popal and Kharufeh in 2020, when the two friends were looking to open their own food business.