In the early Oughts, my high school friend Ben was working in real estate in the Silicon Valley and living across San Francisco Bay in Fremont. We’d trade off, with Ben visiting Los Angeles and me visiting him in the Bay Area, each of those weekends involving an obscene amount of food consumption and daily runs that no doubt saved our stomachs from total oblivion. When he was living in Fremont, we already knew that his town featured the largest Afghan population outside of the mountainous motherland, but we were more intent on exploring San Francisco, so we never visited any of Fremont Boulevard’s many markets and kebab houses. Years later, on a trip north with friend Matthew “Mattatouille” Kang, our first stop was at Salang Pass, a restaurant in Little Kabul (as the area is called) that dates to 1997 and features an especially good reputation.
Current owner Zarmina Wahid is from Kandahar, and co-owner Zekria Rashid hails from Jalalabad. According to Anil, our server, Zarmina went to school with Zekria’s wife in Kabul.
The interior featured cushioned banquettes, wood tables and a mountain mural, a nod to the origin of the restaurant’s name, which refers to the mountain pass that crossed the Hindu Kush mountains, but was rendered obsolete with the 1964 introduction of a Soviet-built tunnel. An upraised, curtained area features traditional Afghan seating. A shelf above our table touted Afghan artifacts, including fuzzy shoes that are no doubt designed for protection from the cold, a decorative rifle and pottery.
To start, we received a basket of berberi, spongy, sesame-studded wheat bread served with sweet spicy red pepper sauce and herbaceous cilantro chutney. There was also a dispenser for sumac, which people sprinkle on kabobs to add a lemony tang.
As Anil said, “Our chef thought this was an order for two tables.” Apparently Mr. Kang and I have the appetite of four or five people.
Aushak ($6 appetizer) involved thin-skinned ravioli stuffed with spiced leeks and bombed with a robust blend of tomatoes, ground beef and lentils, plus a tangy yogurt sauce dusted with dried mint.
Bolani ($7.50) was a griddled flatbread filled with chopped leeks, cilantro and “special seasonings,” served with cup of thick, tangy yogurt, designed for dipping. They cut the bolani into sheets, similar to Chinese scallion pie, blistered and stuffed with leeks instead of studding the pancake.
Mantoo were Afghan style dumplings with thicker skins than aushak, stuffed with ground beef, onions and spices, topped with more ground beef, split peas and yogurt sauce, a proven combo.
Borani Kadoo ($6) were mildly sweet slabs of pumpkin, sauteed with garlic and peppers and cardamom until redolent and spreadable. Yes, the “special yogurt sauce” once again came into play.
Chapli Kabob ($8.50) was yet another good dish, maybe the day’s best, featuring a cilantro and coriander-flecked kabob formed into a sandal and griddled until a crust formed. The patty came with scallions and basmati rice and benefited from a squeeze of lemon. Every option on the lunch menu comes with naan and vegetable of the day. During our visit, that meant soft cauliflower florets sautéed with tomato and stained yellow with saffron.
There are bound to be other interesting Afghan options in Fremont and neighboring Newark, but Salang Pass set a high bar, and was a great food focused introduction to the seemingly vibrant community.