When you write about restaurants, you tend to get tips from readers extolling the virtues of their favorite neighborhood bistro or under-the-radar Indian joint. What you don’t typically get, as I recently did, is a video of a guy gleefully spinning and hopping around the parking lot of a strip mall. Attached was a message about the restaurant in the background, called Afghan Bistro. “I had made a bet with my Afghani friend,” the tipster wrote. “If he found the food to be amazing, he had to do the Afghan wedding dance.”
Indeed, the food at the cozy, gracious dining room is joy-inducing. All the more impressive given that this is owner Omar Masroor’s first restaurant; until recently, he sold cars. Masroor says he opened the place so he could work alongside his family—his mother provided the recipes, his wife and daughter work in the kitchen, and another daughter is a server—but also so he could introduce people to the Afghan cooking he remembers from his childhood in Kabul, before the Soviet war saw Indian and Pakistani influences drift into the cuisine.
There’s the sour-sweet slaw ($4.95)—a tangle of julienned, sautéed carrots marinated in lemon juice—that his mom made when he was a kid. It’s billed as a starter but works best as a bracingly contrasting accompaniment to the rich stews and rice dishes that come later. The four chutneys that hit the table after you order provide the same function, though I could have eaten the avocado version—whipped with yogurt and cilantro and a splash of vinegar—straight off a spoon.
Your best bet is to kick things off with one of the hot or cold mezze platters ($10.95), or at least an order of barta ($4.95), a cool roasted-eggplant dip enlivened by chopped jalapeños and turmeric. Aushak and mantu—steamed dumplings filled with either leek and scallion or spiced, minced beef, then doused in yogurt, cayenne, and dried mint—is available as an appetizer ($4.95) or entrée ($9.95). Either way, an order deserves a place on your table.
I never tried a bad dish here—among the juicy and tender kebabs, nicely seasoned rice dishes, and dips—but nearly all of the very best plates were found on the chalkboard of specials. Beautifully marinated and grilled milk-fed lamb chops ($17.95) alongside a mound of fluffy, raisin-and-carrot-studded rice. A fall-off-the-bone lamb-shank moghuli ($16.95) blanketed in a spicy-creamy sauce. And chicken lawaan ($10.95), a yogurty stew blitzed with plenty of cilantro. Happily, a few things don’t show up anywhere on the menu—butter, cream, MSG, and food coloring. (“Anytime you see red- or orange-colored meat—run,” Masroor says.)
It’s worth sticking around for dessert, whether a saffron-spiced rice pudding ($3.95), a trio of baklava ($3.50), or dense vanilla ice cream showered with crushed cardamom ($3.25).
Then maybe you, too, will be inspired to tear it up in the parking lot.
8081-D Alban Rd., Springfield; 703-337-4722
Open Monday for dinner, Tuesday through Saturday for lunch and dinner.
This article appears in our September 2016 issue of Washingtonian.