When I first walked into Express Kabob, the restaurant was empty. Not just empty of customers — empty, period. As the door shut behind me, the sound attracted the attention of no employees. I tried opening and closing the door again. No luck. I picked a chair up and dropped it from about four inches above the tile floor.
A friend had said that the food here was worth the drive to Plano, so I stayed. She was right. Express Kabob opened in late 2017, and it offers a wide variety of Afghan foods in a casual counter-service setting. It’s a charming addition to the neighborhood, a source not just of kebabs but of lamb shanks, fragrant rice pilaf, rice pudding and more.
Best of all, it’s never empty anymore.
“A lot of our traffic has been word of mouth,” owner Reahim Budri says. “I don’t like to do a lot of marketing for the belief that if the food is good enough, word will travel.”
The restaurant is a family business; Reahim operates it with his brother, Naim, who often mans the counter and explains the menu to first-timers. Their mother, Zakia, acts as sous chef, and their father, Amruddin, provides the inspiration.
“It was a concept started by my dad,” Reahim explains. “He’s the man behind the recipes. He actually taught my mom how to cook, which was really rare then. This was me, my brother and my dad creating a place that would have a more traditional style of Afghan food. There are some other restaurants that say they do that but have a little more Persian, Iranian influence.”
That isn’t necessarily a problem. Afghanistan is a diverse country with at least a half-dozen major ethnic groups; Iran is a major culinary influence in its western half while other traditions show the influence of Pakistan and even Mediterranean cuisines, especially Turkish.
Amruddin and Zakia Budri arrived in the United States in 1980, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.
“My dad went to high school in Iowa, in Cedar Rapids,” Reahim says. “My mom went to school in Beaumont.”
The sons are Dallas natives, which explains why they enlisted their parents’ help to ensure Express Kabob stays true to its Afghan roots. Amruddin’s health keeps him away from the restaurant most days — he lost a leg to diabetes — but he remains an adviser.
The centerpiece in the dining room is a front counter case stacked with skewers of meat. Cubes of lamb, beef and chicken slide onto long, wide, flat skewers that resemble broadswords. Look at the stacks of skewers and pick one to try: beef rib-eye, lamb cubes, lamb chops, salmon or chicken, most of them available in mild or spicy marinades. Any of these skewers can be lined up along the grill behind the counter, where bits of flame spit up around the meats.
I like the lamb kebab ($11 for meat and naan, $14 for a combo with rice and sides), with meat a little more tender than the beef rib-eye, which can become overcooked ($11 for meat and naan, $14 for the combo). The kebabs may look cool right on top of the flame, with the fire licking the sides, but it’s wiser to grill meat just apart to avoid drying it out.
The spicy marinade is serious business. Like a venomous snake, it uses its bright red color to warn carnivores of the danger. The red pepper flavor lingers long after that of the meat. Be warned, or opt for the still flavorful milder meats marinated in extra-virgin olive oil.
The kebab combo platter is the smart choice because it allows the option of Kabuli pulao, a marvelous basmati rice pilaf made with long, super-thin slices of carrot and raisins that seem plumped up practically back into grapes. It’s an aromatic dish, the taste as subtle as the smell is intoxicating, the perfect foil to the savory, peppery force of the meat.
There’s a whole side of the menu that doesn’t involve kebabs, too, and it contains many of my favorites. Mantu ($9) are wide, plump Afghan dumplings, each nearly 2 inches across, filled with ground beef and onions and topped with dal nakhut, yellow dal made by splitting chickpeas. The mantu sport a yogurt sauce that fuses garlic and mint together into a funky, uniquely tangy topping. A drizzle of tomato-butter sauce and a showering of parsley complete the picture.
The same two sauces — yogurt and gently spicy tomato — sing in harmony on another dish, bademjan ($6). This is an even simpler dish — the cooks slice thick discs of eggplant and drop them into the deep fryer, skins untrimmed, before slathering them with sauces and showering them with herbs.
Eating repeatedly at Express Kabob, I’ve been struck by how much the Silk Road cultures have in common. Many of the dishes here will be familiar to diners who love Persian, Middle Eastern or Turkish foods. My Turkish family has its own version of fried eggplant with garlic yogurt sauce on top, and it’s a staple of our holiday feasts. We don’t trim the skins off, either. The Afghan word for dumpling, mantu, is nearly identical to the Turkish manti and the Korean mandu.
Just about everyone will grasp, and love, the concept behind bolani ($6). It’s a paper-thin flatbread with an even thinner layer of stuffing, and the whole thing gets thrown on the griddle to become nice and crisp. I couldn’t decide between potato and leek fillings, so the restaurant offered to split my bolani half-and-half. I still can’t decide which I like better, the thin morsels of potato mixed with sliced scallions or the “leeks,” which look suspiciously like good old green onions, with a pinch of red pepper.
Express Kabob’s naan bread is good and has a pleasing springy texture; it never develops the too-thin burnt middles that plague some restaurants. But there could certainly be more texture to the bread, and the owners know it. Right now, the Budri family has a baker custom-make the bread but is hoping to install equipment for onsite baking this summer.
An even easier fix will rescue the baklava ($2.79), which has spot-on flavor but looks, from the pale color and soft texture, like it could bake longer and cool down longer before going into the display case.
But there is a delightful Afghan dessert to fill the gap — ferni ($3.49), a sort of cross between rice pudding and custard with softly sweet flavor, a subtle touch of rose water and a few sprinklings of pistachios. Ferni is wonderful, and the serving at Express Kabob is so huge that it can last for multiple nights.
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Indeed, all the portions here are huge.
“The Middle Eastern appetite is big,” Reahim Budri jokes.
As Plano finds out about his family’s cooking, the city’s appetite for ferni, bademjan and bolani may grow to match.
Express Kabob, 1915 Central Expressway, Plano. 469-298-0189, originalexpresskabob.com. Open 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.