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Behold the Afghan Burrito: A Bay Area Classic, Remixed

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Two halves of a cut-open burrito held so that the cross section is visible. It's stuff full of rice, beans, steak, lettuce, tomato and a creamy golden sauce.
Afghan Burrito's namesake dish is similar to a classic Mission burrito in its construction, but the creamy golden sauce provides a unique flavor profile. (Luke Tsai)

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.

An oozy, overstuffed burrito wrapped in gold foil.
The gold foil–wrapped burrito is delicious — and also ready for Instagram. (Courtesy of Afghan Burrito)

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.

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In that sense, the Afghan burrito is a cherished family recipe as much as it is some newfangled fusion creation. “We’re living off that legacy,” Kharufeh says.

And if Afghan burritos haven’t gotten a lot of mainstream traction up until this point, that might be in part because the Hot Shop has never branded them quite so explicitly. It lists the equivalent burrito on its menu as a “Tropical Burrito” (or “Cajun Burrito,” if you want it to be spicy). Also, the golden sauce is described as a “tropical honey curry sauce” — another clue to its ingredient makeup, perhaps.

Kharufeh and Popal stress that their take on an Afghan burrito is mostly identical to a classic Mission burrito in its construction. Popal, the restaurant’s main chef, added his own tweaks to his uncle’s sauce, which is made with a blend of “a lot of spices” that are typical in Central Asian cooking, the only one of which he’s willing to reveal is turmeric. That’s what gives the sauce its characteristic golden hue. He also developed a new marination technique for the meats that’s based on the traditional way you would marinate Afghan kebabs.

The results speak for themselves. Afghan Burrito opened its San Pablo Avenue storefront last spring after an initial stint in a commercial kitchen, and the burritos have already built up a loyal and diverse fanbase. For Ramadan, earlier this spring, the restaurant stayed open late on the weekend so that Muslim customers could come for suhoor, the pre-sunrise meal eaten before the start of a day of fasting. It wound up being a huge success — though “ironically,” Kharufeh says, “Muslims didn’t show up.”

A restaurant's palm tree–lined parking lot and outdoor dining area lit up at night.
Through the end of the summer, the restaurant will stay open until 1 a.m. on weekends. (Courtesy of Afghan Burrito)

Instead, the restaurant’s tented dining area filled up with folks from all backgrounds — “our tribe,” as Kharufeh puts it — who were simply thrilled to find a rare late-night food spot in Berkeley. The response was so enthusiastic that the restaurant plans to stay open until 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays at least through the end of the summer.

Meanwhile, Popal and Kharufeh have even bigger plans in the works. They say their West Berkeley location was never meant to house just one restaurant. Instead, they’ve dubbed the venue the “Cal Food Garden” and want to develop the outdoor dining area, in particular, as a welcoming, family-friendly community space. Eventually, they plan to open additional vendors within that space, including a cafe and a barbecue restaurant that will be built around another set of old recipes they’ve acquired — from Big Daddy’s Barbecue, a spot that was popular in Oakland back in the ’80s.

As for Afghan Burrito, Popal and Kharufeh say the burritos are just the beginning. This summer they’ll expand the menu to include crowd pleasers like fried chicken, loaded fries and something they suspect people will like even better than the burritos: Afghan tacos, drizzled with that same golden sauce their customers can’t get enough of.

Afghan Burrito is open Monday through Thursday 11 a.m–9 p.m. and Fri.–Sat. 11 a.m.–1 a.m. at 2309 San Pablo Ave. in Berkeley.

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