Afandi Grill

Walking into Afandi Grill for the first time, I knew right away that it wouldn’t be my last. Tucked between a coffee shop and a bodega on 1st Avenue, Afandi couldn’t have looked more classically “New York” from the outside. And yet, as soon as I stepped in, the unique mix of traditional and urban décor and menu of homestyle Uzbek foods with modern twists, made it clear that the small restaurant packs a big punch in distinguishing itself from neighborhood competition.

When I visited, Afandi hadn’t even reached its one year anniversary, but had already been highlighted in TimeOut as a restaurant to visit in the East Village, and been featured as one of five immigrant-owned restaurants in all of Manhattan by the Museum of Food and Drink in an event called The Economics of Being an Immigrant in NYC’s Food Industry.

My first dish at Afandi was one of the Baked Buns, or Samsas. The cold tomato sauce provided to pour over the top proved to be an unexpectedly delicious complement to the hot chicken, onion, and Uzbek spice filling. Between the contrasting interior flavors and temperatures and the perfectly flaky exterior crust, the dish was both refreshing and satisfying, and I cleaned my plate.

Next, I tried the Fried Bite Dumplings with spinach. Neither too hard and chewy nor too soft and weak, the dumplings were a perfect consistency and delicious.

Finally, I tasted the Fried Beef Lagman, a plate of hand-pulled noodles piled with beef, bell peppers, daikon, cabbage, and onions. After my mouthwatering first two dishes, I couldn’t finish my third, but it was scrumptious as well and when I reheated it in my microwave the next day, its lasting flavor and texture were testament to the freshness of Afandi’s ingredients.
As I tucked into my beef noodles, I was able to talk to Afandi owner and chef, Kamola Akhmedova, who also rang me up after my meal and served and provided recommendations to another customer while I was in the restaurant, demonstrating her hands-on, all-in approach to Afandi.

Kamola officially opened Afandi a year ago September. Originally from Uzbekistan, she attended school in Australia and then moved to New York with her husband. Three years ago, Kamola spent time documenting her home country’s cuisine and exploring the food scene in New York, and then started to work in restaurant kitchens to gain experience before opening her own. Her driving motivation, she tells me, was not only to bring Uzbek cuisine to New Yorkers for the first time, but also to create something new by designing vegan and vegetarian versions of traditional beef and lemon heavy dishes to bring Uzbek cuisine into the modern foodie era.

When designing her menu, Kamola wanted to make more “every day”, accessible versions of traditionally heavy dishes to make her offerings more comfortable and light. At the same time, she made sure to keep traditional dishes on her menu to showcase the history of Uzbek food; Uzbek cuisine has both Russian and Asian influences, and marries things like hand-pulled noodles from China with beef and onion combinations popular in soviet cooking. Kamola’s personal favorite Uzbek food is a cultural essential called Plaf, a rice dish served alongside most meals with fresh salad, yogurt, and hot tea. When I asked if she still enjoys cooking at home now that she cooks in the restaurant, she told me that no matter what, happy or stressed, she always loves to cook at the end of a day.

As she decided on what she wanted to serve, Kamola also decided on her ideal location. She chose the East Village because of the area’s diverse and young population, and because it’s where many New Yorkers flock to on weekends to try new foods and find new favorite spots. When she found the current Afandi space, it had been empty since 2014, and felt very old. Instead of renovating the whole interior, however, Kamola opted to keep the original brick on one of the restaurant’s large walls, and on the wall opposite, hire a graffiti artist to paint a large-scale piece; the décor itself represents how the traditional Uzbek and modern urban sides of Afandi’s menu meet.

After almost a year, Kamola says that she’s finally settled into a routine and built a family in the Afandi kitchen. The restaurant is closed on Mondays, when Kamola goes to a depot to pick up fresh ingredients for the week ahead, open Tuesday to Friday after 5pm, and has full hours on the weekends. Friday and Saturday are the space’s most crowded times, and Kamola herself is in the restaurant at least six days a week, every week. She explained that on weekends, when Afandi is at its busiest, managing customers and staff at the same time can be stressful, but when you belong to your kitchen and are both chef and owner, those stressful moments are also your favorite moments. Kamola’s proudest moment, she told me with a smile, was when, after about six months of operating, Afandi started to get consistently crowded and booked with reservations, and when there was a line out the door for the first time, she felt like all of her hard work and sleepless nights had paid off.

When I asked how she balanced her time in the restaurant and out, Kamola laughed and said that there is no such thing as a perfect balance of family and work. She described how important family is to her, and how grateful she is to have her husband’s family close by so that her son can stay with his grandmother at times. She also described how, after a year in business, she finally has a family-like team at Afandi, so she can trust them to take care of operations and start to take Saturdays off again to spend more weekend time with her son. She’s incredibly grateful for everyone on her team and says it’s very important to have a good team of people in the restaurant business. The first year of anything is the toughest one for balance, she told me.

Before heading home, I asked Kamola if she had any advice for others hoping to open their own restaurant. First, she said, get as much experience as you can. Kamola has a degree in hospitality management from the Management Development Institute of Singapore in Tashkent, but she explained that hands on experience is equally, if not more, important in the food industry. Especially in New York, you need the New York restaurant experience. Kamola said that even if you have to work for free, it’s worth it, because you’ll learn something new every day. She spent a year gaining experience, and she recommends taking as much time as you can, because the restaurant business is one of the toughest industries in the U.S., but if you love what you do, it’s priceless. Second, in opening your own business, it will feel like you are sacrificing time with loved ones because you must be present at the restaurant 24/7, you have to be flexible enough to come in anytime, and when all of your friends and family have their time and days off on the weekends, those days are your busiest working days, so it’s tricky to navigate. Her final piece of insight for hopeful restaurateurs: Be ready to realize that you have to live at your restaurant. Kamola said that sometimes she literally wanted to put a sofa in the back to stay overnight and make sure that everything went perfectly.

I left Afandi full of delicious food and excited to share Kamola’s story. I recommend Afandi to all of my friends in New York, and you should, too!

Visit:
Afandi Grill
149 1st Avenue, New York, NY 10003
212.253.2222

Hours
Tuesday - Friday: 12PM - 10PM
Saturday: 11AM - 11PM
Sunday: 11AM - 10PM

About the author:
Julian Bishop is a Chilean-American son of an immigrant and bona fide foodie.

Himalayan Cuisine

Editor's note: This is the fourth of a series of 4 mini articles written by Yara Elian, a High School Senior, providing an insight into how local Bay Area restaurateurs are coping in these uncertain economic times caused by the Covid 19 pandemic. If you are local to the Bay Area, please support these featured restaurants. If you are not local to Bay Area, please support your local restaurants- they really are in need of our patronage!

Born in the Himalayan Country of Nepal, Surya has loved to cook since childhood. He would learn all of his early cooking techniques from his mother, whenever he had time. He left Nepal in 2008 to study abroad in Denmark. In order to cover his tuition fees, as well as continue practicing his cooking interests, Surya began working at a Japanese restaurant. He started as a dishwasher and slowly worked his way up until he finally became the main chef and manager of that restaurant. In addition to his job at the Japanese restaurant, he also worked as a server at the Radisson BLU Scandinavian Hotel where the Japanese restaurant he worked at was located. This gave him the opportunity to learn additional skills in the hospitality and food service industry.

After receiving his degree in Denmark in 2010, Surya and his wife immigrated to the United States. Though he came with the intention of opening a restaurant business, he waited until 2014, further honing his skills by working at different styles of restaurants, like Mediterranean, Japanese, and Nepalese. Surya finally opened his Himalayan cuisine restaurant in Concord, California. Although it was challenging at first, Surya remarked that he was not afraid of challenges. He overcame all obstacles, one by one, and kept pursuing his dream. “I am blessed to have had the support of my family and my community,” he said, “I love that I can be my own boss and that I can give jobs to other people in my community. I hire the locals, the immigrants, and I love to give jobs to students- I know it is hard for them.”

Before the virus crisis, Himalayan Cuisine was a venue for all sorts of parties: graduation, birthdays, marriage celebrations, as well as catering to local offices and the Nepalese community. Surya’s catering services are well known in his community because of his ability to create authentic Nepali dishes with real Nepali flavors.

Kopila, Surya’s wife, helps out at her husband’s restaurant as well by managing all of the restaurant’s business details. While the crisis has usurped 70% of Surya’s income, none of his employees were let go. The chef makes sure to take care of his employees as if they were a part of his family.

For those who have never tried Himalayan Cuisine, Surya recommends ordering the traditional Nepali Chicken or Veggie Momos. He also recommends the Chicken Choila, and the chicken or lamb Sekuwa, that he prepares as it would be back in Nepal. His customers’ favorites are the butter chicken, garlic naan, goat curry, and Tandoori chicken There are more options for vegetarian and vegan customers as well.

"Yo Ati Mitho Chha" means "It is very delicious" in Nepali, and Surya's cuisine certainly is!

Visit:
Himalayan Cuisine
2118 Willow Pass Rd Ste 400, Concord, CA 94520
(925) 490 3344

Chopan Kabob: Covid update

Editor's note: This is the second of a series of 4 mini articles written by Yara Elian, a High School Senior, providing an insight into how local Bay Area restaurateurs are coping in these uncertain economic times caused by the Covid 19 pandemic. If you are local to the Bay Area, please support these featured restaurants. If you are not local to Bay Area, please support your local restaurants- they really are in need of our patronage!

Javed Ahmadi always had a knack for cooking delicious kebabs. After immigrating to the Bay Area from Afghanistan, his friends were always excited to come over to his barbeque cookouts, knowing that they would have a special culinary treat each time. One time while his friends were over at his infamous cookouts, someone commented, “You are doing so well! Why don’t you open a restaurant?” The idea hovered in Ahmadi’s head. Soon, with the support of his family, Javed acquired a local kabob place which was already in business for the past 15 years. For him, adjusting to the new environment the first few years were exceptionally tough as he changed the restaurant to fit his style of cooking. However, Javed's reputation as an amazing cook and manager grew, and the restaurant got a huge following of loyal customers.

In 2019, the restaurant did exceptionally well and they opened a second location, but then the COVID-19 crisis hit. "Sales are down 70%", Javed remarked, "but we are all in this together''. Despite the takeover of the virus, Javed is very thankful for his customers who continue to support him by ordering takeout for pickup and delivery.

For customers who have never tried Afgan cuisine, Javed recommends ordering a family special that includes sizzling lamb kabob, tandoori chicken kabob, beef tikka kabob, beef kabob, and a side of daal. comes with family-sized rice, naan, and salad. It costs $49.95 and is enough for 5 people.

ChopanKabob has 2 locations in Concord and San Ramon. Javed runs the restaurant together with his brothers Abdul W. Ahmadi and Ahmad F. Ahmadi.
While “Sahtein!” means both “Bon Appetit!” and “You are welcome” in Arabic, the literal meaning behind it is “two healths”. When you say this word you are not only wishing double health, but also prosperity to those who are eating with you.

Visit:
Chopan Kabob
2699 Monument Blvd, Concord, CA
(925) 689-5488

Yara Elian is a Senior at Northgate High School in the San Francisco Bay Area, who loves languages, cultures, food, and writing.

Ruby’s Fast Food

Meeting the Owners

Walking towards Ruby's Fast Food on a cool but sunny November day in Chicago, the neighborhood is unassuming and quiet, with the exception of the crackling leaves and passing cars on this main street. I arrive at my destination, walk through the entrance, and find myself in a bustling operation. The air is warm and filled with the sounds of cooking in the kitchen, the smell of garlic, and a variety of seasonings that tempts the appetite. There is a line of people waiting to place their orders at the counter, and all but one solitary table is filled with diners cheerfully chattering and enjoying their meals. The interior of the restaurant is the polar opposite of where I was a moment ago.

While busy, the owners, Nickie and Arnie Rodica, are promptly taking the orders and packaging them for their customers with consummate ease. The two men are brothers, and took over the restaurant from their late mother, Ruby, in 2018.

Manila

Born in Manila in the Philippines, Ruby's captivation with food was inherent through her mother's involvement with cooking. Her mother had several canteens in the city where she would lead, manage, and cook for the local workers. “A fresh meal for good prices” said Nickie. Eventually, Ruby followed in the steps of her mother. There was a small kiosk in front of the house where they lived, and Ruby went on to use that space to make and sell meals everyday.

While in the Manila, Ruby met her husband Florante Rodica. “I'm not sure when my parents met, but I know they lived in the same neighborhood, somewhere along the line one chased the other” Nickie says with a laugh. After some time, Ruby and Florante's family grew with the addition of Arnie, their eldest son, and Nickie.
Florante was 1 of 13 siblings, and once his older siblings moved and settled in the US, he and Ruby decided to do the same. “Back in the day, that's how it worked” said Nickie, “the first sibling comes, and then the others follow.” So in January of 1991, the Rodica family started their journey to the southwest suburb of Westmont, Illinois to join the rest of their family. Nickie was 7 at the time, and while both his parents spoke English, Nickie did not. “I remember we were in the airport in Narita, Japan going to the States, and I wanted to tell my dad [in English] I was hungry, and the phrase that came out of my mouth was 'Dad, eat me'” Nickie recited lauging. “They would start laughing and I would ask 'Why are you laughing? Eat me!' and dad asks 'Why would I eat you?'” Even though Nickie did not speak much English then, the prospect of life in the US that was exciting for him, did not turn out to be so easy for his parents.

Westmont

The transition from the Philippines to Illinois was difficult for Ruby and Florante, firstly due to the lack of tropical weather, having arrived in a snowy January (Nickie was excited to see snow for the first time), but also due to leaving friends and family back home. Finding fulfilling work also proved to be a challenge. Since Ruby was helping her mom with the canteens in Manila, she was not sure what to do once she arrived. She ultimately looked for work wherever she could find it and over time worked in a number of places including a dry cleaning business, a fabric store, an office, and did some CNA work. During this time, Ruby would bring food to work where her coworkers would sample, and it became a hit! Those that tasted her food would ask her to prepare some items for them and would ask how much she would charge. Ruby never really enjoyed her 8 hour job, and with comments like “Why don't you open a restaurant?” she saw this as a chance to test the waters and do home catering on the weekends. Things were starting to take a turn for the better.

Nickie, meanwhile, was adjusting well. He took an English as a second language course in grade school and had good grades overall. It was when he was in the 6th grade that his interest in cooking developed while taking a Home Economics class. “The teacher's name was Mrs. Love,” said Nickie “She liked me and how I did in the class. So I would say 'If you like me, I love you!'” A good pun for an 11 year old! In the class, the students had the opportunity to bake cakes, cookies, and brownies. And as weeks passed, the tasks changed and got more complex. The class was his introduction to cooking first hand, and soon he starting experimenting on his own. “That's how I got into baking, cooking... frying the first egg ever, to frying hotdogs, mostly frying at first” said Nickie. “Then I made my first Pancit [a Filipino Stir Fry Noodle dish], not the best, but practice makes perfect.” Nickie has continued to hone his newfound interest ever since.

Over time, the family decided it was time for another move, this time with their eyes set on Chicago. In the summer of 1997, after Arnie finished high school and Nickie grade school, they set forth on their next adventure.

Chicago

The move to Chicago was a positive one for the family. Nickie and Arnie were doing well in school, and Ruby and Florante continued to work full time to support the family, but cooking was never far from Ruby's mind. At the time, Ruby and Florante did their taxes at a business located near the intersections Montrose and Ridgeway Avenue in the Albany Park neighborhood. When visiting this business, Ruby noticed a Fast Food Burger restaurant across the street. One day, during another of her visits, Ruby saw that the restaurant closed and the space opened up. Ruby saw this as a sign. There were not many Filipino restaurants in the city, and with her success catering on the weekends and the positive feedback, she decided to give it a try. After all her hard work, and working long hours to save up, she was finally able to open her restaurant, and called it Ruby's Fast Food.

Ruby's Fast Food, The Beginning

Ruby's Fast Food saw immediate success but it was not without the help of her family. Florante, who was working in a clinical lab at the time, noticed that Ruby needed help at the business, and she agreed that it would be best if he joined. He soon began assisting with the cooking, and putting his own style into some of the recipes.
Nickie, who was one of the first students in Chicago to get a full tuition scholarship through The Posse Foundation [a program that rewards students in inner city schools that apply themselves] went on to complete his Bachelor's Degree at DePauw University in Biochemistry and Spanish in 2005. “There was some expectation for me and my brother to become a lawyer or a doctor. So my thought was to pursue one of those” said Nickie. After college, he also began helping at the restaurant part time first washing dishes, moving up to food prep, and then actually cooking. He learned a lot from his parents at this point watching how they would taste everything, learning to grasp the flavors, how to cook for a large group of people, and watching his parents style of cooking that overtime developed into his own.

Nickie intended to go back to school and was preparing for the MCAT's (Medical College Admission Test) to pursue Medical Sciences but he was not able to focus on studying since he was working at the same time. “The family business became more of a priority” said Nickie. He had mixed feelings about this at first, whether there was the obligation to be involved in the family business, his hesitation due mostly to his studies. At the same time, he did want to be involved because he enjoyed cooking so much. “Now, I wouldn't even question it” said Nickie, “I like being here, being in the kitchen, preparing the food, making sure things are done right, customers are eating well, and enjoying themselves.

The family's hard work did not go unnoticed. In 2010 and 2011 the restaurant was featured on several shows including The Cooking Channel's “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” WGN's “Chicago's Best,” and the Travel Channel's “Bizarre Foods,” creating international exposure and attracting visitors from places like Greece and Singapore. “I remember that one night me, mom, and dad were sitting down and watching Bizarre Foods, an episode about Filipino food, thinking how great it would be to be on a show like that” said Nickie, “little did we know that 4 years later we would be contacted by a producer on the show.”

As time went on, Ruby's health began to decline, and she needed Nickie and Arnie to take on more responsibilities at the restaurant. She continued to take more of a step back from the restaurant until she knew that her sons could fully run the business on their own. “Today, my parents are no longer with us unfortunately” said Nickie, “I think my mom's plan was always to open a restaurant once she got to the US, and I think the goal for the restaurant was to provide for the family, so that my brother and I had something, and to provide to the Filipinos in the area. My mom was kind of a philanthropist. When she would earn from the restaurant, sometimes she would donate to the churches, or to the Philippines, to those she thought needed help.

“My mom was a tough person and besides me, Arnie, and my dad, she was on her own. But she persevered and did what she wanted to do, enjoyed cooking, and now I'm doing it how she taught me” said Nickie, “I'm very thankful for her. Those who do move to the states have that common idea of finding the American dream and with the restaurant she was able to achieve that."

Ruby's Fast Food, Today

Nickie and Arnie officially took over the restaurant in 2018. There are 5 people total that work at the restaurant including Nickie and Arnie. “Everyone pretty much knows what they have to do” said Nickie, “the guys come in at 8 [am], I come in at 8:30, and we have a short meeting to discuss what the plan is for the day.” Once the clock strikes 12, the restaurant is open for business. Most of the clientele are regulars whom Nickie and Arnie know on a first name basis, and while they are in line, they know more or less what they are going to order. They've even grown close relationships with some of their customers over the years. “We have a customer, she's like a grandma to me” said Nickie “she likes to cook too and she shares recipes with me because she says that none of her kids want to do it.” They also see new customers on the weekends mostly credited to advertisements and the television programs they were featured in. They receive an average of 250 orders per day on the weekdays, and double that per day on the weekends (not including weekend catering), a testament to their continued success.

And understandably so! Nickie brought over the first couple items which were “Bistec,” braised beef cooked with sugar, soy sauce, onions, and lemon, and “Chop Suey,” green beans, zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower, bell peppers, shrimp, and mushrooms. The beef was soaked in a rich sauce and was so tender you could cut with a spoon! The flavor was savory with a sweet undertone from the sugar. The vegetables from the Chop Suey were perfectly cooked through with a surprise light seasoned broth at the bottom, a combination of the vegetables and shrimp.

Next was “Garlic Rice,” white rice sauteed in fresh garlic finished with fried garlic and scallions, with “Catfish Nuggets,” catfish fried in a seasoned batter, “Chicken Curry,” chicken cooked with Japanese curry, coconut milk, potatoes, carrots, and bell peppers, and “Lumpia,” fried ground pork spring rolls seasoned with garlic, salt, and black pepper, served with a side of “Suka,” a spicy vinegar sauce, and “Sweet and Sour Sauce.” The garlic rice, while simple in theory, was flavorful and executed so well that it could be eaten on its own. This paired well with the remaining items. The catfish was light with a crusty salty batter, the lumpia wrap was crisp encasing a juicy and chewy ground pork, the chicken curry, despite looking heavy, had a delicate curry flavor, tender chicken, and sizable vegetables that complimented the overall texture.

After that was the “Pancit,” a crowd favorite. Pancit consists of stir fried thin rice noodles sauteed in garlic, soy sauce, oyster sauce, with pork, shrimp, and vegetables, served with a lemon wedge. The noodles were soft and lightly coated with oil, the pork and shrimp were hardy and maintained their respective flavors, while the vegetables added a crunch that brought the whole dish together.

We topped it all off with “Halo Halo,” a sweet drink made with sweet white and red mung beans, sweetened jackfruit, coconut, coconut jelly, shaved ice, evaporated milk, toasted sweet rice, dulce de leche, ube [purple yam] paste, and ube flavored cereal. A mixture of textures that could not be more favorable! If you have a sweet tooth, Halo Halo is the perfect drink. “Arnie was telling me that in the Philippines, each household would have their own version of Halo Halo, and people would go to other houses and pay whatever to have their version” said Nickie. The best way to eat is to mix everything.

“We are one of the few places that are authentic” said Nickie. “This is a lot of the food grandma and mom would make back in the Philippines. After reading the reviews online, that's one of the most common comments you see, that the food is authentic and people like and enjoy coming here- they feel at home.”

I experienced that first-hand speaking to some of the regulars during my time at the restaurant. “I come here at least twice a week!” said one of the diners, a middle aged man who is originally from Manila, enthusiastically. “ When I come here I buy a lot, that way when I go home, I don't have to cook, I just put in the microwave and I'm done! This is the best Filipino food in the city!” He continued with a laugh “I used to live all the way across town and moved two blocks away so I could be closer to the restaurant!” Another diner, an elderly woman also originally from Manila, agreed from across the room “Yes, the food is the best! I like to cook but sometimes I get so tired and it's easy for me to come here and get good food” she continued “This is my hobby, eat, eat, eat!” To which we all agreed! The feeling of home continued when I asked Nickie and Arnie to get together for a photo. The woman I was speaking to earlier commented “Aren't they handsome? You should see them in a suit! Not in this thing, this apron!” she says endearingly “But they are both handsome men!”

Nickie does have his sights on other ventures. One goal is for the restaurant to become bigger. He'd like to double the amount of seating, and the size of the Kitchen. He is also considering opening another space somewhere in the city, a diner with a “Filipino twist,” because of his love for Filipino food (which always puts a smile on his face) and breakfast foods. Whatever the next step may be, he wants to maintain the integrity of the food. But another thing that's important, Nickie said, is that his mom told him to never leave this space. “She was superstitious in the way that she thought, and if the luck is there, you stay” referring to the restaurant's success at that location. “If you want to experience having a Filipino grandmother, what it feels like to have a home cooked Filipino meal, come here” said Nickie, “It will fill you up, touch your soul, and make you smile.” I wrapped up by asking Nickie what other exciting things are coming up for him, his response “I kind of wish my parents had more kids and I want a big family” he laughs “but this coming new year, I'm planning on getting a puppy, so I want to start with that and see how it goes.”

Visit:
Ruby’s Fast Food
3740 W Montrose Ave
Chicago, IL 60618
(773) 539-2669

Hours:
Monday - Closed
Tuesday through Friday - 12:00pm to 7:00pm
Saturday and Sunday - 11:00am to 7:00pm
Holiday Hours Vary

About the Author - Leslie Fabian
Leslie has a long background in the hospitality industry and initially started in the industry with the hopes of eventually opening a restaurant. That is still the case, but in the meantime, she spends her time dining at area restaurants, trying new foods, and baking. She is also working on starting a Food Blog called “All Things Eats” where she showcases area restaurants, makes baking videos, reviews new food products, and generally talks about all things eats!

The Mantu

No matter where you travel in this life, you can rest easy knowing that there will be dumplings. Each culture has some from of dough, stuffed with a sweet or savory filling, assured to satisfy even the pickiest eaters. When I first asked people what they knew about Afghan food, I got back answers like falafel, humus, and babaganoush. In reality, Afghan food is composed of many layers of fresh ingredients like herbs, vegetables, and varying proteins equipt to feed both carnivores and omnivores alike. Cue the dumplings - Mantu are the rose-shaped pastries native to Afghanistan, and are also the namesake of the new Richmond restaurant opened by refugee Chef Hamidullah Noori.

The Journey

Chef Noori came to America in 2015, settling first in Newport News, Virginia. There, he connected with NGOs who assigned him to labor intensive occupations like construction work. However, Noori had a secret - he was a talented chef with dreams of greatness, and he wasn’t planning on settling for anything less than he was worth. “I always had hope,” he said, “my mother told me, God is with you, even if you don’t have the chances that other people have, that’s fine because you’re not an ordinary person”.

With those words echoing in his mind, Hamid bought a bike and pedaled from restaurant to restaurant until he stopped at a little place off Warwick Boulevard - Saffron, a traditional Middle Eastern and Mediterranean eatery. He worked at Saffron for about 7 months before he moved to Richmond, Virginia, in search of better opportunities to support his family back home.

When he arrived in Richmond, Noorani Kabab House became his new home, where he made Pakistani, Indian and Chinese cuisine for two years. Noorani had a set menu, and Hamid was yearning to stretch his creative chops - to create and share his history and talents through the medium of taste. Noori is all about progress. “I didn’t want to have the same label my whole life,” he mused, “there were chefs who had been there for 6 or 7 years, and I didn’t want to be like that… I’m not made for that”.

Hamid decided to take a step back from restaurant life, to find an outlet outside of a kitchen, and took a night shift packaging boxes at a local Vitamin Shop. His days were reserved for working with the International Refugee Committee, an organization and resource for refugees, asylum seekers, victims of trafficking and other vulnerable immigrants in the United States. Noori found the IRC when he arrived in Richmond, and employees Kieth Mulvin and Lillie Hinkle helped connect him with the head chef from Ellwood Thompsons, a locally sourced organic grocery store and cafe, where he was immediately hired after a short interview. Two days after starting at Ellwood’s, he received a call that his family was in danger.

After Hamid left Afghanistan in 2015, his mother and siblings began receiving threats from members of the Taliban regime, a common reaction to family members immigrating to America. It is often assumed that the person is changing sides or becoming a spy for a foreign government. Noori tried everything he could think of to help his family - he helped relocate them to India, but the climate was too harsh, so they moved on to Turkey. Upon arrival at the Turkish border, his mother and brothers were were displaced and separated, as far as ten hours from each other. None of them spoke the language, making the logistics of starting a new life next to impossible. Hamid appealed to Ellwood’s head chef and the IRC, explaining that he had to leave for two weeks to help his kin - not exactly the ideal start to a new job. Members of the IRC begged him to stay, unsure that his job would still be available when he returned, but Hamid had faith - if he had gotten this far, he knew he could do it again.

He was in Turkey for 18 days before returning to the United States. As expected, when he contacted the chef at Ellwood, the cooking position had been filled, but there was a need for a dishwasher. Noori happily accepted the position, and after some time, started helping out with preparing the salad bar entrees, when it quickly became apparent that he had the skills and classic training to operate independently. Hamid climbed through the ranks of the kitchen over the course of several months, and began producing his own dishes, such as the Mantu dumplings, to be featured on the hot bar. From there, the owner of Ellwood Thompsons, Rick Hood, started introducing Hamid to people who would change the course of his life. His most generous gift, however, was the space the restaurant now occupies. So began the inception of The Mantu.

The Space and Menu Features

The Mantu’s interior features cozy tables in an elegant, simply adorned dining room. Their patio is an intimate space, perfect for long autumn evenings with friends under warm bistro lights that illuminate the crisp, clean white tablecloths and seasonal herb garden that line the space.

As expected, the star of the show was the Mantu dumplings. My favorite was the vegetarian option - the tender pastry had a luxurious mouthfeel, and the shredded butternut squash inside cannot be described as anything other than al dente, perfectly balanced with the other herbaceous elements of the dish. The petals of the pastry and fresh interior were exquisitely complemented by the savory red kidney beans and accompanying sauces. While the beef dumpling was also a favorite, I felt the vegetarian mantu really highlighted the fundamental components Noori described as classic Afghan cuisine; “...the herbs, spices and fresh vegetables that we use are the same as what other people use, but the way of cooking is a little different. When people are thinking of Afghanee food, it’s citrusy, not too spicy, and the texture and flavor of everything, you can feel it… you should feel all the ingredients that are in the dish”.

Coming in a close second, the lamb shank was roasted to utter perfection. At first I was surprised by the lack of steak knife at the table, but the moment I dug in, I understood why. The lamb was cooked impeccably, falling off the bone like melting butter. The dense, meaty dish was elevated by citrusy spices, and balanced with tender lentils served on a sizzling skillet. What more can you ask?

The potato skins are a popular dish with a loaded story behind it. Chef Noori took a deep breath before starting. “There was a time a time when we did not have food,” he said, heavily. He explained it like this:

One day, Noori was working in the kitchen slicing onions, and he was crying. His manager approached him and asked if it was because of the alliums or something else.
“Both,” he replied, “it makes me cry because there was a time when we did not have anything… when I slice them, sometimes I feel like I’m back in that situation...sometimes all we would eat is bread and onions. These are the things that I know, a way to survive, a way to start living again - potato skins and onions.” The beginning of everything, for Hamid.

In addition to potato peels and onions, the dish includes greens, such as cauliflower leaves, all crisped together in a satisfying snack, designed to precede any entree. The modern adaptation of Hamid’s childhood meal features garlic, tomatoes, jalapeno, and light splices.

Trials and Tribulations

Like many immigrant business owners, Hamid had many challenges to overcome to get to the point he’s at now. Besides the uncertainty of familial obligations, one of the struggles he’s faced has been conquering the trauma of his past. As Noori was growing up, the Taliban was fighting to take control of Afghanistan, and it completely changed the home he once knew. When he was 8 years old, he was working in a gas station when there was an explosion, and he became trapped inside as a fire raged around him. He was rescued, suffering just a burn on the back of his hand. “Nobody believes this, but now when I go to the gas station, it all comes back to me,” he said, “it’s always alive, that moment the gas station started burning”.

Another roadblock Noori faced was funding. Opening a restaurant is incredibly expensive, often costing more than $300,000. However, he fought uncertainty with incredible vulnerability. “Everybody supported me,” Hamid said, “whatever you see here wasn’t bought with my own money… if you share your dreams with others you’ll see that there are thousand of the right people around you who are just waiting to see how they can help you”.

Noori’s advice to those wanting to follow a similar path? “Wherever you go, you can change the world. If you bring hope, people will follow you”.

Visit:
The Mantu
10 S Thompson St
Richmond, VA 23221
Tel: (804) 716-6760
Hours:
Mon: Closed
Tue - Sun: 5:00 pm - 10:00 pm