A Family Affair at Khyber Pass Café
Khyber Pass Café revives diners with art, music and soul-satisfying cuisine.
Emel and Masooda Sherzad and a few of their favorite dishes from Khyber Pass.
To eat a meal at Khyber Pass Café is to be fed in the most nourishing sense. The food is restorative and filling, the kind a weary traveler would want set down before her. Above the laden plates, art covers the walls and Afghan rugs hang low; the music of the rubab, an Afghan string instrument, floats through the restaurant. It’s an enriching ambience that evokes at once the inherent allure of a foreign land and the deep comfort of arriving home.
For owners Masooda and Emel Sherzad, those sentiments resonate deeply. The two have been running Khyber Pass for 25 years, though the restaurant has been around since 1986. It was Masooda’s family who opened it after fleeing through the mountains from Kabul to Pakistan, then eventually settling in the United States. Emel was a student at Macalester when he discovered the Afghan restaurant.
“I went and ate and introduced myself to the family,” he says. “I started working there on weekends.”
He, like Masooda, had been uprooted from his native country, when he was forced to leave during the 1978 coup. He finished high school in Switzerland, then came to the United States to study Spanish, Portuguese and art. After Macalester, he went out east for graduate school. Not two years later, he returned to Minnesota to marry Masooda and take over the restaurant with her. Soon he was adding his own family recipes to the menu.
“In Afghanistan,” Emel says, “food is very much a family affair.” He recalls how his parents would use the term “foreign” to describe the food made by other families. It all looks the same, he grants, but to a native palate, the taste is quite different from one house to the next.
In general, Afghan cuisine incorporates elements of Persian, Middle Eastern, Central Asian and Indian food. Spices like coriander, cumin, turmeric, cardamom and curry impart vibrant colors and tastes that are, as Emel puts it, bolder than Persian food but more subtle than Indian food.
At Khyber Pass Café, the lunch buffet ($10.50) is a welcome sight to the uncertain diner. Each item is clearly labeled and includes a recommended sauce pairing—a helpful touch for anyone who wouldn’t think to drizzle cilantro walnut chutney on the chicken kebabs or dollop yogurt sauce alongside braised eggplant. Our advice? Try a bit of everything, including the cool, custardy firni, a milk pudding flavored with cardamom and rose water. At meal’s end, the creamy chai ($2.50) is as comforting as settling, well fed, into a warm bed.
One meal at Khyber Pass is all it takes to justify its inclusion in the recently published 1000 Foods to Eat Before You Die: A Food Lover’s Life List by former New York Times restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton. But despite the restaurant’s critical acclaim and prime location at the corner of Grand and Snelling, business isn’t always predictable.
“People are creatures of habit,” Emel says. “It’s still not a familiar cuisine. And I think given the political climate, that makes it even less popular.”
Because of that general reluctance, both Masooda and Emel have a fundamental appreciation for those who do venture through their doors.
“The type of people who come in here are by definition adventurous and open-minded,” Emel says. “And I like to surround myself with such people.”
One of those people is Naomi Perman, a Saint Paul resident and Khyber Pass regular since the late ’80s. When Perman considers what it is that keeps her coming back, she first describes the food: reliable, flavorful and, in reference to the lamb chops (market price), extraordinary. But the conversation soon turns to Emel and Masooda.
“Once they took over operations, it was like visiting relatives,” Perman says. “My husband died two years ago, and while he was sick, they were very supportive. Now I come in and they track my progress, see how I’m doing.”
Khyber Pass Café is one of the only metro area restaurants that serve exclusively Afghan cuisine (hummus is the only non-Afghan menu item; they decided to include it simply because people expected it). Photographs by world traveler George Pfaff line the walls, along with paintings by Emel, who grew up around artists and the smell of oil paint. And every Thursday night, Khyber Pass features live music.
“Music and food have this thing in common,” Emel says, “where political borders become meaningless.”
For Emel, who moonlights as a KFAI radio host once a week, music is religion. He extols its ability to unite humanity, and he subsists on regular jam sessions—he calls them “soul-blending sessions”—with fellow musicians. Meanwhile, Masooda has taken north Indian classical dance classes and is, according to Emel, an encyclopedia of Bollywood music.
It’s hard to imagine two spirits better suited to welcoming the weary traveler.
From Hosted to Hosts, City Pages
“Local Afghan émigrés ring in the Solar New Year with Nau-Rouz”
Being a guest is nice, but eventualy it starts to wear on a person. It helps to be polite and appropriately grateful, but no matter how welcoming your hosts, there always comes a time when it feels like your suitcase is taking up too much space in the spare room and it’s time to roll up the futon and go.
When you immigrate to a new country, it can take years to stop feeling like a guest. You have to send down roots deep enough to build a home of your own before you can return the favor and host the people who’ve hosted you for so many years.
That’s more or less how Emel Sherzad felt. Sherzad was born in Afghanistan and lived there until 1978 when his family was forced into exile in Europe. He first came to Minnesota in 1985 to attend Macalester College in St. Paul.
Sherzad hadn’t been in St. Paul long when he heard that a new Afghan restaurant had opened up nearby, on St. Clair Avenue. It was named Khyber Pass Café, after the treacherous mountain pass that that connects his country with Pakistan. Hungry for food that reminded him of home, he went to the new restaurant and ordered a meal.
“It was perfect,” recalls Sherzad, who’d been disappointed by the other “Middle Eastern” food he’d eaten in the city. “It tasted just the way Afghani food was supposed to taste.”
It was also perfect that in this restaurant Sherzad was among Afghan people. Not only could he eat food that reminded him of home, he was with others who spoke his language and shared his culture. Eventually, he got a job working in the restaurant, and became friends with the owners’ son. He also became friends with the owners’ daughter, and in 1991, they married.
“Masooda was my waitress that first time I came to the restaurant,” he recalls. “As soon as I saw her, I knew this was a real Afghani restaurant because she carried herself with such pride.”
That pride, Sherzad understood, came from being able to share Afghan cuisine and culture with American diners. He longed to do the same thing one day, to share the traditions of the country he’d been forced to leave so many years ago.
Not long after they married, the couple bought the restaurant from Masooda’s family, and for nearly 15 years, they’ve served as St. Paul’s unofficial representatives of Afghan culture. It’s a role Sherzad relishes. He, Masooda, and their two children have made St. Paul their home, and since the restaurant feels like an extension of their own dining room, they get the pleasure of hosting people every day.
“Home is where your friends are,” Sherzad says. “From the beginning, St. Paul has been a very welcoming place to me. I also like to be a welcoming person, and this restaurant gives me the opportunity to do that. I feel like through this job I can give back a little to this city that has been so welcoming to me. Afghans are a hospitable people. We might be a poor country, but we are generous.”
One Afghan tradition Sherzad particularly enjoys sharing with his customers is Nau-Rouz, or Afghan New Year. In Afghanistan, the new year begins in late March, around the vernal equinox. Nau-Rouz (or Nau Ruz) is an ancient spring celebration of renewal celebrated in much of the Mideast, featuring outdoor egg games, music, dancing, and food.
“It’s the best holiday,” Sherzad says. “It has struggled to survive in modern times because it has pagan roots. In Iran, when the religious people came to power, they banned it. The Taliban in Afghanistan banned it, too. I like it because it’s a celebration of the sun. It transcends religion. It makes so much sense to me to celebrate the renewal of nature, to celebrate spring, to let go of the old and celebrate new life.” This year, the Sherzad family and Khyber Pass will host a Nau-Rouz celebration March 17 and 18.
Beyond regular menu items–such as the four mini-dish vegetarian plate or the organic lamb stewed with spinach–the restaurant will feature several traditional Nau-Rouz delicacies, including a sweet soup called haft mewa. “Haft mewa means seven fruits,” Sherzad explains. “We take seven different dried fruits and nuts, soak them in water for a couple of days, and then add rosewater so the fruits release their own sugar.” It’s delicious, he adds, sort of like Scandinavian fruit soup.
Other traditional dishes Sherzad plans to serve at this year’s Nau-Rouz celebration include qubeli pilau, a savory treat of brown rice cooked in stock and combined with caramelized onions, julienned carrots, raisins, almonds, and pistachios; and kadu borani, a warm, mellow dish of stewed butternut squash.
Kadu Borani isn’t a traditional Nau-Rouz dish, but Sherzad likes to serve it at this time of year because it reminds him of home. “It’s an old family recipe, a particular favorite of mine,” he says. “Because you start with whole squash, it’s really very labor intensive to prepare.”
Best Middle Eastern Restaurant, City Pages
Best Middle Eastern Restaurant, City Pages
Global flavors, By Jeremy Iggers, Star Tribune
It has been quite a few years since I last set foot in Afghanistan, and my recollections of the cuisine are foggy at best. But of this much I am certain: The food at the newly relocated Khyber Pass Cafe in St. Paul is as tasty as anything I ate in Kandahar or Kabul, and much more sanitary.
In its previous location, on St. Clair Avenue near Randolph Avenue, the Khyber Pass was a well-kept secret; now that it has moved to Grand Avenue just east of Snelling Avenue, it should attract a lot more students and others with adventurous palates and limited budgets. The simple but tasteful decor includes photographs of the Afghan region by local photographer George Pfaff, as well as paintings by Emel Sherzad, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Masooda.
The cuisine combines flavors of the Middle East and central and south Asia. The kebabs are a lot like those served in Arabic or Persian restaurants, while the daal (yellow lentils) and cardamom-flavored tea are reminiscent of Indian cuisine. Don’t expect fireworks; dishes tend to be well-seasoned and tasty, but not very spicy or complex.
Most of the entrees are variations on a couple of themes: lamb or chicken, either stewed with various accompaniments or served as kebabs. The lamb and chicken kebabs are among the best in town: big chunks of juicy, flavorful meat. The stewed lamb also is recommended, but the chicken curry was a bit bland. So was the plain basmati rice, which accompanies most entrees; a seasoned rice pilau (pilaf) would be a great improvement.
Vegetarians have several options, including mashawa, a hearty bean soup topped with yogurt and mint, and a vegetarian combination plate that includes your choice of eggplant in tomato sauce, spinach with leeks and spices, daal and stewed potatoes with green peas.
Desserts include a very ordinary baklava, a milk pudding and a rice pudding; both puddings are flavored with cardamom, pistachios and rosewater, so they taste quite similar. Beverage options include Afghan green tea with cardamom, sweetened black tea with milk and cardamom, and dogh, an unsweetened yogurt drink, plus juices, sodas, coffees and a limited selection of beers and inexpensive wines.