Dining on a Shoestring: Khan Kabob’s Meat Masters

Skewered beef, warm naan, and—yes—lamb brains are standouts.

Never had lamb brains? Khan Kabob in Chantilly is the place to try them. Photograph by Scott Suchman

Get the lamb brains.

I know, I know: There’s got to be a more enticing way to share my enthusiasm for Khan Kabob, one of the very best—maybe the very best—of a slew of kebab houses dotting Northern Virginia.

But it’s true. You may not eat anything all year that’s as exciting, as satisfying, or certainly as interesting, as the lamb-brain karahi ($23.99—enough to feed two), a three-times-a-week special.

Karahi describes both the food and its cooking vessel, a handleless wok of hammered metal into which a cook tosses garlic, ginger, tomatoes, and cilantro. Think of it as the zesty Eastern answer to sofrito, the base for a good bit of Latin American cooking.

Of course, it’s what a cook does with those ingredients that matters, and the crew at Khan Kabob achieves a concentration of flavor unrivaled by the competition, not to mention a smokiness that lends a subtle and seldom-seen perfume. Every bite is a whirlwind of heat, pungency, and heady aromatics.

I haven’t talked about the brains themselves yet, have I? Well, look: I doubt you’d even recognize them as brains. They disappear so completely into the sauce that to stare into the large pot, you might guess you were looking at curds. I like to think of them as a source of creamy richness, the way I do sweetbreads.

Still not sold? You can order the dish with chicken ($21.99) or minced beef ($23.99), and both are terrific, too.

Ladle the stew over the accompanying bowl of steamed rice (which is excellent) or even better, scoop it with bread. Khan makes one of the best rounds of naan ($1.50) you’ll find. The dimpled surface is unexpectedly crunchy—yielding to a soft, chewy interior—and sprinkled generously with sesame seeds.

I also like to tear off pieces and use them to swaddle bites of kebab, drizzling hunks of charred chicken and lamb with the yogurt-cilantro sauce.

Not that the meats need any help.

Owner Tariq Khan commanded the kitchen for more than a decade at Ravi Kabob, the grande dame of Washington’s kebab houses, developing its recipes and refining its techniques. Khan declines to divulge his secrets but does allow that he marinates his meats at least 24 hours. The complex flavor of the finished product isn’t hard to identify, at least in part: garlic, onion, coriander, red chili, black pepper. The juiciness is the great wonder, given that nothing here is ever cooked rare or medium-rare.

Go for the bone-in chicken kebab ($10.49), which has more succulence than the breast-meat alternative; the seekh kebab ($9.99), aggressively spiced minced beef molded around a metal skewer; or the champ tandoori ($15.50), whose three foil-tipped lamb chops—cooked perfectly, despite their relative thinness—will leave your lips tingling from the spices rubbed into the meat before grilling.

If I’m looking for a spice rush, though, it’s the karahi I want.

Khan says the lamb brains are available on a limited basis because of how often he’s able to procure them from his source—also because the supply itself isn’t large. Most people, particularly Americans, aren’t often tempted to try a dish made with brains.

Which just makes this sometime special that much more special.

Khan Kabob. 4229 Lafayette Center Dr., Chantilly; 703-817-1200. Open daily for lunch and dinner.

This article appears in the February 2014 issue of Washingtonian.