For years, Sami Zaman scrambled for a patch of sidewalk where he could stake a pushcart and build a life, coffee by coffee, at 65 cents a cup. The cart’s tin shell boiled in summer and rattled in winter. At last, he capitulated and took to driving a cab, still roaming, never stopping long enough to claim any place as his own.
Now flowers tug skyward from planters outside Sami’s Kabab House in Astoria, Queens, an unexpected wedge of garden between a tax accountant’s office and a laundromat. Mr. Zaman, 49, opened the restaurant in November, transforming an industrial space with wine-dark carpets and embossed ceiling tiles that remind him of the houses in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he grew up.
The menu is brief and unfussy, drawing in part from Mr. Zaman’s ancestry, half-Uzbek, half-Tajik. In his hands, Afghan mantu (dumplings) are smaller-scale, almost demure cousins to hulking Uzbek manti, but still retain a touch of shagginess. Their delicate skins are loosely packed with ground beef, musky from cumin, and just barely pinched shut. They arrive dressed, resting on thick yogurt with an insistent beat of garlic and strewed with more ground beef in sunset slashes of long-broken-down tomatoes and onions.
Ashak, indistinguishable from mantu from the outside, reveal green interiors lined with Chinese leeks, the closest Mr. Zaman can find to Afghan gandana. The fragrance is punchier than the flavor, which is lulling and tentatively sweet. Although theoretically vegetarian, ashak also come strewn with ground beef.
Larger dishes are simple, gratifying arrangements of meat, be it lamb chops, dark and thrilling, with the tips of their bones nearly charred through; knobs of ground beef, burnished chicken thigh or lamb torn off the shank, the flesh still harboring an instinct to resist; or lamb korma, the lamb left to unknit itself in a pot of yogurt, tomatoes and onions kept seething until they weep sugar.
Anchoring every plate is Kabuli palaw, the grains soaked and swollen with drippings from roasting lamb, then topped with fat, shining raisins and carrots, caramelized and chewy. Other vegetables come to the table in various states of surrender: a thatch of spinach with a sunny streak of preserved lemon; eggplant mellowed in the oven under tomatoes; okra, midway between crunchy and yielding.
Brass samovars, their legs topped with tiny lion heads, stand by the kitchen. Tea is green or black, with sugar traditionally added to the first cup and the last cup untempered, bitter and strong. Here, too, is the drink of Afghan summers: dough, pronounced with the “gh” hard and half-swallowed, tongue curled to the back of the throat. Its base is yogurt, only slightly thinned by water, its creaminess cut by cucumber and flecks of dried mint. The salt is refreshing; there’s not a hint of sweetness.
The meal might end with sheer birinj, rice pudding scented with rose water and cinnamon, under a dusting of crushed pistachios. Or vanilla ice cream striped with rose-water syrup, improvised by Mr. Zaman, who weaves in and out of conversations as he checks on guests, with a flourish of silver hair and a frank smile.
In Kabul, he was the youngest of 11 children, almost all of whom found their way to the United States, “to live free and be happy in the best country in the world,” he said. A framed verse from the Quran hangs on the back wall, and a sign by the samovars says, “God bless America.”
When he was 5, his father died; he had to learn to cook to help his mother. Now his wife, Sharisa, occasionally stops by the restaurant to cook alongside him. (The mantu are especially good when she is there, he said.) His older children also pitch in, waiting tables on weekends when they’re off from school.
Sami’s Kabab House
35-57 Crescent Street