So-called Middle Eastern cuisine is a blanket construct that people apply to many cultures and cuisines in the region. The notion sometimes extends to parts of North Africa and western Asia, though at Ariana, a restaurant from Wahid "Abdul" Hamidi, the definition includes the food of Afghanistan, and to a lesser extent, Lebanon.
The restaurant opened back in July 2015 with a fairly modern space, featuring a glass-fronted kitchen, wood-lined counters and walls, red clothed tables, and exposed black rafters. However, the food holds considerably more interest than the decor. If you view the menu as a draft, chapli kabob ($10.99) should be your first round pick.
The value of this place is nearly off the charts. Monstrous missile-shaped flatbread supports a pair of grilled sandal-shaped patties. Ariana marinates ground beef sirloin with scallions, cilantro, coriander, and garlic while egg and flour act as binding agents. The spice level is variable, depending on how much red pepper you can tolerate. Each order comes with rice seasoned with cardamom and cinnamon for an extra kick. An Afghan salad similar to pico de gallo with chopped tomato, cucumber, onion, and parsley joins the fray. Squeeze a lemon wedge and spoon on spicy cilantro chutney to complete the savory picture.
The value of this place is nearly off the charts
Kabuli pallow ($15.99) is named for a province in northeast Afghanistan that houses Kabul, the country's capital and largest city. The name of this rice dish is typically spelled Qaboli. Regardless, a mountain of browned basmati rice arrives seasoned with fragrant cardamom and cinnamon, accented with raisins, shaved almonds, carrots, and pistachios, and plated with a choice of tender beef or lamb leg.
Ariana also has a deft touch with Afghan dumplings, making delicate skins in house. Mantoo ($12.99) are steamed rounds filled with ground beef, onion, and vegetables that are topped with tangy yogurt sauce, ground beef, and split peas before serving. Aushak ($11.99) are steamed half-moon shaped leek dumplings with bright green fillings, topped with ground beef and tangy yogurt sauce, and tomato sauce. The vivid dressing consists of dried mint, oregano and yellow split peas.
If you enjoy Chinese scallion pancakes, you'll probably love Ariana's bolani ($10.99). This flaky griddled flatbread is stuffed with either leeks or potatoes and served with a dish of yogurt sauce to spoon on said bread.
Chef Shafiq Ahmadi, a fellow Kabul native, also prepares Lebanese food because the space previously housed Pita Corner Cafe, and Hamidi wanted to continue to appeal to non-Afghans in the community. That said, Afghan menu items have gradually outperformed Lebanese dishes.
Most address Hamidi as "Abdul," since it's apparently easier for people to pronounce than Wahid. He's taken the nickname in stride. Clearly, his outlook is positive. He previously worked in the retail clothing industry in San Francisco until the Great Recession forced him out of business.
According to Hamidi, Ariana refers to Aryan people who were originally from countries that rimmed the North Caspian Sea, like his ancestors. Germans later misappropriated the idea of the planet's "original" people. Hamidi is as far from the Nazi ideal of blonde hair and blue eyes as possible, with darker skin, black hair, glasses, and a goatee.
Some people might take the restaurant's name the wrong way, but Hamidi made it clear Ariana's food is for everyone. Based on the vivid flavors and diverse clientele in evidence during my two visits, it's clear that Ariana is capable of wide appeal.
19321 Ventura Blvd.