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!
149 1st Avenue, New York, NY 10003
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.