Sky Full of Bacon

#43: Afghan Kabob Grill, And Thoughts On a Fast Food World

Kati Rolls in Chicago? asked this LTHForum thread. What are Kati Rolls? Well, you take something every Indian restaurant has, like paratha (a flatbread), and you roll up whatever else you have in it, and suddenly you have a Kati Roll. So in theory, most of the Indian restaurants in town serve something fitting the profile of a Kati Roll. But as the thread points out, in some places, you have specifically Kati Roll fast food joints, which people are evidently pining for, to judge by that thread. I guess it’s a little bit like the difference between a place that has a hamburger on the menu, and a hamburger joint; and certainly I’m in no position to judge anyone else for waxing nostalgic about hamburger joints, so I guess the answer is… Chicago has plenty of places to get things that are functionally Kati Rolls, but we don’t really have a Kati Roll fast food joint in that sense, as apparently New York does.

One suggestion for a place that comes somewhat close to a Kati Roll joint is a place called J.K. Kabab House on Rockwell just north of Devon. I’ve noticed it over the years but never actually eaten there, so Wednesday, I popped in and chatted with the proprietor for a few minutes; my first inclination was to order a chicken boti roll, but he steered me toward the day’s special of a lamb kebob instead:

Roll it up and, voila, a Kati Roll, I guess. It wasn’t the most profound Indian meal I ever ate, but it was surprisingly light (paratha can be a grease sponge, but this wasn’t), fresh and tasty hot off the grill, all in all happily satisfying. There was something kind of fast foody about it— a little insubstantial; like the paratha mix came from the Indian equivalent of Bisquick, perhaps, or maybe it was the obvious high fructose corn syrup in the raita (a yogurt-based dip), which made it more like Kraft creamy Italian or something. But somehow I didn’t mind that, it was like getting an authentic taste of what the teens at a mall in Delhi or Chandigarh are eating. If these started popping up in American malls, I’d be happy.

So while I was looking for J.K.’s, I saw a new sign I hadn’t noticed before, for a place called Afghan Grill Kabob. And I knew where I’d be eating the next day.

Afghan Grill Kabob is fairly posh as Afghan restaurants go, well-coordinated decor with a small stage set up for nighttime performances (a soundcheck suddenly blared middle-eastern hiphop at one point in our meal). Afghan food, in my experience, is like Turkish food— some dishes are essentially identical (eggplant dip with a tart yogurt sauce on top) but even if they’re not, the pleasures are subtle ones, it’s comfy earthy food, not blow your socks off with either bold flavor or aggressive spicing.

So to see a pair of spicy condiments, one green with jalapeno, the other red with chilis, set on the table was a surprise. We started with an eggplant dip, a salad similar to Jerusalem salad (chopped finely enough that one of my co-diners called it “Jerusalem salsa”), and some beef mantu, which seemed bland and a bit wan next to examples I’ve had at other Afghan restaurants. We had two main courses; one was lamb kebobs, a bit overcooked (which, to be fair, seems to be the middle-eastern norm) but a perfectly decent rendition of the usual kebobs on a giant mound of rice dish, and one which they called chicken biryani, though the hostess took pains to explain that it was not Indian-style biryani. Instead it was quite large chunks of chicken tossed with rice in a tomatoey sauce which made it look something like a middle-American baked spaghetti dinner. It also had surprising heat for Afghan food— and we were told that there was a level of heat up from that that we could ask for.

It wasn’t the best Afghan meal I’ve ever had, but it had its moments; I’d check back in the place in a few months or so, see how it’s coming along. It did make me think a bit, though, about the preconceptions we food adventurers come to places like this with. Of the two new places I just tried on Devon, Afghan Grill Kabob was clearly the more authentic restaurant of the two in a sense, and its food gave off all the attributes of homemade-ness that I’m supposed to treasure. But I have to say, as I write about the two meals, it’s the fast food version— the Kati Roll— that’s calling my name right now. I don’t think it’s because there’s a part of my brain that’s been sucker-trained by the fast food industry; after all, the most obviously fast-foody part of the meal (the raita) was the part that turned me off. But I do think there is something naturally appealing about something light and quick that is well-executed and satisfying, and on the rare occasions fast food achieves the well-executed part and avoids the “sugared-up crap” part, we’re not wrong to like it. Anyway, I’ll try Afghan Grill Kabob, but I have a feeling my next Kati Roll could be next week. Or sooner.

J.K. Kabab House
6412 North Rockwell
Chicago, IL 60645
(773) 761-6089

Afghan Grill Kabob
2657 W Devon Ave
Chicago, IL 60659

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