The house salad should have given it away, or maybe the fact that a second Afghan restaurant served pizza, but for some reason, it took a post-meal chat with owner Mohammed Yasin Safdari to determine that a connection existed with the only other Afghan restaurant I’d encountered in the San Fernando Valley: Chopan Kebab House. Safdari is a Kabul native who operated Morigi’s Khyber in the Chopan space for seven-and-a-half years before opening Khybar in late 2007. In both cases, the name was inspired by the Khyber Pass, a treacherous route from Afghanistan to Pakistan through the Spin Ghar mountains. Fortunately for diners, the meal is far from foreboding.
The strip mall storefront features tile floors, yellow walls with massive wood clock and a TV in the corner playing Afghan movies and TV shows.
No matter what you order, expect a crisp iceberg lettuce salad with shaved black olives, tomato and cucumber slices, garbanzo beans and herb flecked Italian dressing.
We started with Qabili Palau ($10.95) – “Afghanistan’s National Dish” – basmati rice cooked in beef broth, washed with aromatic cardamom and piled with fork-tender veal cubes, strands of carrot, raisins and shaved almonds. Since carrots and raisins have so much inherent sugar, the dish was fairly sweet, but the cardamom tinge and the fluffy, vermicelli-like consistency of the rice was enough to achieve balance.
Mantoo ($9.95) involved steamed, thin-skinned dumplings loaded with juicy beef and onions. The plate of dumplings was drizzled with tangy yogurt and scattered with chili-like ground beef curry and assorted vegetables, including lima beans, peas and corn kernels. Steamed dumplings can be bland in the wrong hands, but not with Khybar’s tag team of sauces. This was my favorite dish.
Shola Gushti ($8.95) was a gut-buster, a mountain of “sticky” rice folded with shredded veal, garbanzo beans, sweet red peppers and tiny yellow mung beans, which are used in Vietnamese desserts, but imparted no sweetness to the rice. Even though the clumpy texture of the rice was overly heavy, Khybar provided layers of flavor, including strands of dill, minced cilantro and subtly spicy curry.
Khybar is worth trying due to the sheer rarity of Afghan food in Los Angeles. Also, aside from the Shola Gushti, you should expect fairly light food with bold flavors. Finally, if Afghan flavors aren’t for you, Khybar also makes pizza, a remnant from Morigi Khyber’s time in a former pizzeria.