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November 11, 2009 > Restaurant Review: Salang Pass

Restaurant Review: Salang Pass

By Denny Stein

There is a point on earth considered, by some, to be its demographic center. This spot falls in the Hindu Kush mountain range. Located high in these Hindu Kush Mountains is Afghanistan's Salang Pass, 12,723 feet above sea level. It is a beautiful and treacherous crossing, valued for centuries by powers that vie for control of Persia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, Pakistan and India.

In Centreville, on Fremont Avenue, there is another Salang Pass. Here you will be rewarded by the welcome of owners Zarmina Wahid and Vikraya Rashid. Without the rigors of travel, you can experience the pleasure of a real Afghan meal. Ms. Wahid says that Afghani food is less spicy than that of India to the east, and not as bland as Persian cuisine to the west. But it retains the deep flavors and succulent ingredients native to that part of the world. The menu transports you to the slopes of the Hindu Kush: Pallow is brown rice, Challow is white rice, Quabili equals raisins, almonds, and carrots, and Kadoo means pumpkin. Having been to several Afghani restaurants in Baltimore and Boston, I'd like to say that the Salang Pass Restaurant, here in Fremont, is by far the best.

Quabili Pallow is one of Afghanistan's most famous dishes. A tender piece of lamb, hidden under brown rice, is baked and then sprinkled with quabili when served. The lamb falls off the bone when you sink your fork into it. The pallow is moist with lamb juices. Raisins, almonds and carrots add visual and textural interest, bringing sweet fresh flavors to the baked lambiness of the meat and rice... absolutely richly pleasing.

Ms. Wahid said that Quabili Pallow is often made at home in Afghanistan where she was born and raised. In 1973 she moved around the world to Denver where she and her late husband opened the Khyber Pass Restaurant. Though a lawyer by training and experience, her current occupation exemplifies Ms. Wahid's versatility; she does not shy from new challenges. She learned to cook from her mother in the Denver restaurant and is now executive chef and owner of Salang Pass. In fact, she told me that restaurant work, though hard, is not nearly as stressful as lawyering!

In 1984, the Wahids moved to Fremont. First they opened M & M Pizza in Union City, after four years they launched Salang Pass. Clearly, Ms. Wahid's cooking lessons have paid off; her restaurant is an East Bay gem. Salang Pass Restaurant has had rave reviews on-line, been featured on television shows, and has a steady catering business, including several hotels in San Francisco.

Given this level of quality, it is hard to choose between various dishes, everything on the menu sounds good, and each item has a different taste twist. Tangy and smooth Borani Kadoo is a blend of creamy, sweet and barely spicy pumpkin, finished with a fresh garlic and mint yogurt sauce. Aushak and Mantoo are the equivalent of ravioli and dumplings. Aushak contains a buttery leek filling, while the Mantoo wraps up beef and onions topped with ground beef. But don't miss the Borta - eggplant baked with garlic, yogurt and olive oil. In fact, a meal consisting of just these appetizers is exciting, and highly satisfying. But that would mean saving the entrees for another time.

So, next time, try one of the many curry or kabob dishes, there are multiple choices with spring lamb, chicken, Afghani meat balls, prawns, fish and ground sirloin, prepared with marinades or sauces, baked or broiled, served with rice, a grilled tomato, salad and naan. The vegetarian dishes are plentiful, encompassing pumpkin, tomatoes, leeks, spinach, and cauliflower, served with special yogurt sauce and accompanied by basmati rice.

A couple of unusual offerings should definitely be tried. One is a drink, called Dogh, made from yogurt, mint and cucumber. It is a savory smoothie, salad in a glass. (Jamba Juice has neglected a whole category of flavors.) The other is a specialty that seemed baffling at first: Afghani Ice Cream served on a bed of noodles. I learned from Zarmina Wahid, and her partner Vikraya Rashid, that the noodles are vermicelli sweetened in sugar syrup, layered over crushed ice, topped with rich, home made, delicately flavored cardamom and rosewater ice cream, sprinkled with pistachios. I don't think you can go wrong here. But if you want to have the Baklava, go ahead.

The restaurant is decorated with a mixture of colors and textures that echo the flavors of the food. Tables and chairs line one side of the dining room; a low railing creates a boundary between this traditional Western dining area and a more exotic Eastern style area with low tables and benches covered with silken cushions and comfortable back pillows. Subdued multicolor velvets tent the ceiling, giving the area an Arabian Nights, Scheherazade feeling. The hanging lamps' illumination swirls off the material, capturing lights and shadows in its folds. The walls are painted light blue or saffron and dark figured cherry pillars and shelves highlight the color changes. Large arched frames behind the benches are inset with mirrors, which reflect opposite wall murals of country scenes. On the walls and shelves are indigenous art pieces, weavings, silver service pieces, huge mosaic platters, pottery and photographs. Even these inanimate objects add flavor to the Salang Pass.

Prices are reasonable; families with children mingle with couples, groups of friends, and single diners. Like that point in the Hindu Kush, local customers and those from around the globe feel comfortable here and are welcomed.

Visited October 15, November 3, 2009

Salang Pass
37462 Fremont Blvd., Fremont
(510) 795-9200
Open 7 days a week

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