Mention Afghanistan to most Richmonders and they’ll launch into talking points about war or change the subject with polite Southern conflict avoidance. Most of us don’t think of Afghan cuisine, which is a shame because it’s delicious, affordable and quite possibly at risk of losing its presence here. The Box Afghan Kabob House serves authentic Afghan cuisine, but only a few are eating it.
The Box is attached to a gas station, surrounded by a desert of empty asphalt, in an underdeveloped stretch of Hull Street about halfway between Chippenham Parkway and Route 288. Inside, however, the low-budget magic of plastic flowers and tablecloths is a pleasant contrast to the gas pumps. And it’s likely to be a private oasis. During the course of three visits, only three other tables were occupied, though a few folks stopped in for carry-out. This may be a good thing, because playing host, waiting tables and cooking seems to be the responsibility of only one man — who maintains a surprisingly cheerful demeanor and enthusiasm for the food despite his many tasks.
Given that Afghanistan lies near India and the Middle East, it’s no surprise that the food reflects these regions — and not just kabobs, which are served off-skewer with delicately spiced long-grain rice. Standouts include the boneless chicken thighs ($9.25) and the Afghan chaplee kabob ($10.25), a ground and spiced lamb mixture that finds the right balance of flavor and heat. The lamb kabob ($10.95) is slightly chewier than expected, but moist and nicely seasoned. The meat is complemented by a refreshing mixture of cucumbers, tomatoes, onions and cilantro.
The appetizer section offers diners an opportunity to explore Afghan foods unavailable elsewhere in Richmond. The bouranee baunjaun ($3.95), described on the menu as fried eggplant, is nothing like the usual breaded and deep-fried version. Tender ribbons of eggplant are served swimming in oil and delicate yogurt, topped with a spicy tomato sauce and accompanied by hot Afghan tandoori bread. Aushak ($3.95) are open-topped ravioli overflowing with a ground beef and lentil mixture, served again with oil and yogurt and sprinkled with dried mint. The vegetarian version should be avoided, though — it’s embarrassingly served with square-cut frozen vegetables.
Boolawnee ($3.95) spreads a thin layer of a tasty, potato-based filling inside flatbread and comes with spicy cilantro dipping sauce. The sambosa ($3.95) replaces the familiar outer shell of an Indian samosa with puff pastry that, in this case, tastes store-bought, overwhelming the delicately spiced filling.
The vegetarian rice dish ($9.25) is a must-try, and combines small plates of the bouranee baunjaun, sautéed pumpkin and spiced spinach with the rice that accompanies the kabobs. Entrees include qaubill palau ($9.95), a staple of Afghan cuisine that mixes spiced rice with raisins, carrots and lamb, which on our visit was a little tough and gamey.
Be sure to request iced tea (not on the menu), a sweetened cardamom-infused black tea which resembles a cold Indian chai. It perfectly complements the food. Firnee ($3.50), or “cornstarch pudding,” is a light, silky, milk dessert that cleanses the palate. The baqlawa ($3.50) is less sticky sweet than its Greek cousin, and worth trying. The menu also includes non-Afghan dishes, such as falafel, subs and halal pizza, but the few who eat there seem to be avoiding these Americanized offerings.
Don’t go to The Box expecting an American-style, quick-service meal. One person cannot be expected to run an entire restaurant, and there can be problems with food preparation and service. Food delivery seems to take an unusually long time, and the rice occasionally can be dry and the meat overcooked. Still, it’s difficult not to root for The Box to succeed. If it addresses some of these issues, it may be able to reach the wider audience this food deserves.
The Box Afghan Kabob House
8151 Hull Street Road
Tuesday-Sunday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Matthew Freeman learned to love food while living on the west coast of Canada, where the local foods movement was in full bloom and endless waves of immigrants transformed these ingredients into memories of their homeland. When he can’t be traveling around the world, he likes to explore different cultures through the food they bring to Richmond.