Salang Pass restaurant is located in Fremont and specializes in Afghani cuisine. It was the first time I have ever had food from Afghanistan. Fremont apparently has the largest Afghani community in the United States.
The décor and ambience of the inside of Salang Pass is in no way reflected in the neighborhood/storefront. After exiting Interstate 880 onto Fremont Boulevard, one travels along three miles of strip mall and cookie-cutter housing developments. It reminded me of why I decided to live in the city! But, on the other hand, I was very pleasantly surprised when my companion, Debbie, and I entered Salang Pass.
The restaurant has two distinct sections. To the right are standard tables and chairs, and to the left is a slightly raised floor and with low tables and cushions to sit on. We decided to sit on the floor. This area is draped with tent-like fabric, so you feel like you are reclining in a tent in the middle of some oasis. Painted on the wall, where the standard tables are, is a slightly kitschy mural of the actual Salang Pass with the year 1919 (date of revolution from the British) highlighted. Sitting on the floor, the tables are long and narrow and people sit side by side. If you were with a party of more than three or four, you would never be able to have a conversation with the people at the other end. For two it is intimate.
We shared four dishes and one dessert between the two of us. The first two dishes served were Borani Bademjan ($5.50), which is eggplant sautéed with fresh tomatoes and garlic and topped with a yogurt sauce; and Bolani, which is described as an Afghani calzone stuffed with leeks and topped with ground beef and yogurt. Both were fantastic! The eggplant Borani Bademjan was savory and while the tomatoes and spices added a nice tartness, the cooling yogurt tied it all together. The Bolani is basically flat bread filled with leek and potato. I would recommend that people order this as a side dish and use it like bread for many of the other dishes.
The next two courses were Mantoo ($5.50) -- another appetizer of dumplings stuffed with beef -- and Chopan Kabob ($13.00), which is lamb served over a bed of basmati rice. The Mantoo was very good with a sweet, yet spicy flavor. The kabob was, unfortunately, the only dish that I did not care for. The lamb was overdone and tough. The rice, however, was perfectly cooked and flavored with cilantro and other spices and then drizzled with lemon -- that worked well. The ubiquitous yogurt sauce was on these dishes as well.
Service was good, but maybe a bit too enthusiastic. I think if the two of us ordered ten dishes on the menu, they would have served us without a peep. I believe good service should suggest appropriate portions of food. After the first two courses were served, they were too quick with the following dishes. Perhaps because we weren't prepared to eat the lamb kabob, it toughened while it waited for us. Two dishes on the menu were not available -- one being a dessert -- so Aref, the server, gave us their homemade ice cream ($4.00) gratis. The rosewater ice cream topped with pistachios was good, but just not for me. We also ordered Turkish coffee ($2.00) that literally tasted like mud. When we asked for milk and sugar and commented that it wasn't to our liking, he did not charge us.
In keeping with the Islamic faith, alcohol is not served at this restaurant. We did bring bottle of wine, and they placed glasses and a corkscrew in front of us. They never touched our wine bottle to fill our glasses, but neither did they charge a corkage fee -- yay!
The cost of the dinner, which would have easily fed three people, was $39.69. Service and food were so good that we left $50.00 total. I would again visit Salang Pass if it wasn't so far from San Francisco, and I'm glad this restaurant was selected for my introduction to Afghani food!
Occupation: Music Promoter
Favorite Restaurant: Antica Trattoria
Reviewed Salang Pass: Wednesday, September 21, 2005
If you have any inkling to venture out and try a new ethnic cuisine and you have a sense of adventure, Salang Pass, a unique Afghan restaurant in Fremont, is a good place to try. Not everything is outstanding, but there are many notable dishes, the people are warm and friendly, and the service, though not perfect, would also bring you back again. The atmosphere, though nothing to write home about from an aesthetic viewpoint, is decorated with an array of traditional Afghan fanfare. Upon entering from an ordinary storefront, there is the option to sit at one of the 15-20 tables or to embark up the platform to a tented covered area. Nasser, our waiter and an immigrant to the United States following the Soviet invasion, explained the multi-colored tented curtains, long cushions, and low tables. Sitting close to the ground under a tent is traditional in living rooms to make guests feel welcome in Afghani homes. And even though the restaurant looks somewhat tired, the walls are painted in cheerful mango and orange tones.
The menu consists of tasty appetizers including the Borani Bademjan -- a zesty dish of steamed and baked thinly-sliced eggplant with a tomato sauce and light yogurt sauce on top. The tender eggplant was seasoned with some wonderful Middle Eastern-type spices that gave a hint of it being a Mediterranean-style dish, yet it was clearly distinct from anything I had eaten. The second appetizer, Borani Kadoo -- a pumpkin dish cubed with spices -- was somewhat less impressive. I'm a big fan of pumpkin, but the vegetable seemed a bit overdone, either from a lack of freshness (possibly frozen) or simply from being overcooked. Saffron, a delicious spice when used judiciously, overwhelmed the dish, making each bite somewhat acrid. Included with the entrees is a simple salad of mixed greens and vegetables, which is placed quickly on the table upon ordering. The bread, a naan style meets focaccia, was underwhelming and possibly on the stale side. A better choice would have been to order the calzone-style bread made with leeks and potatoes that looked fresh and appetizing and got lots of smiles from our neighbors. The salad, though fresh in terms of the lettuce, had a dressing that resembled something straight from a bottle on a grocery store shelf. Other salads included the seemingly more interesting Salata, a mixture of red onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, and mint with a special dressing.
The most impressive part of the dinner, and one that would bring me back, were the entrees. Several were noteworthy, including the Mantoo, which was a sort of dumpling/ravioli hybrid stuffed with beef, onions, and a nice array of spiced seasonings. The tart yogurt sauce on top gave the dish an almost Eastern European flair, reminding me of my background. It makes sense, given that Afghanistan straddles many borders, including the former Soviet Union. The Afghani meatballs were also memorable, tangy with a rich cilantro and tomato sauce. The sauce was plentiful, but not overdone in terms of richness. Finally, the kabob, which comprised a main section of the menu and needed to be tried, was another winner. Tender chunks of lamb shank off the bone were cooked just right. They were tender and flavorful and served with a mild, but slightly seasoned, basmati rice and grilled tomato. For a group, I would recommend ordering at least one kabob, which gives you a choice of lamb, chicken, beef, or combination, because it will balance out the richer and more complex dishes.
The desserts are a combination of ice creams and a baklava-style pastry, which we opted not to try. Instead, when we requested a typical Afghan dessert, Nasser suggested the Jala -- a homemade ice cream over rice noodles with syrup flavored with rosewater and cardamom. I can't say I fell in love with this dessert, but I found myself eating it nevertheless. Perhaps the refreshing and cool ice cream and the unusual spice of the cardamom piqued my interest. In any case, it was exotic and worth trying.