What's Hot and Sizzling in Kabul? The new steakhouse
To the outside world, Afghanistan is an unsettled war zone, where Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters lay ambushes, where warlords carry out bloody personal vendettas, and where the revival of opium is quickly turning this country into a narco-state.Skip to next paragraph
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But here's some good news: Kabul now has a great steakhouse.
Attracted by all those diplomats, peacekeepers, UN officials, aid workers, and foreign correspondents - and their dollars - culinary entrepreneurs are coming to Kabul in droves. Their services comes at a price - between $15 and $25 per person at some restaurants - and is beyond the means of most ordinary Afghans. But for foreigners, the restaurant boom is a welcome alternative to the holy trinity of Afghan cuisine: kebabs, rice, and bread.
For entrepreneurs, the arrival of nongovernmental organizations (or NGOs) with well-paid staffers is the sort of stuff that Nightly Grand Openings are made of. But every good conflict-related aid boom must end, particularly when donor countries start feeling "compassion fatigue." This means that restaurateurs in conflict zones need to move quickly to make their bucks. After all, very few conflict zones have enough of a middle class to keep such exotic restaurants going, after the aid workers have gone.
But in Kabul, the bust is still a long way off, and the boom couldn't come at a better time. Most aid groups now forbid their foreign staffers to travel outside Kabul, because of the increasing frequency of kidnappings or attacks in the countryside. Just last month, two Turkish engineers were rescued by Afghan National Army troops after being held for nearly two months by pro-Taliban fighters near Ghazni.
Yet it's this very reason - danger - that caused Led Trajico Taguiam, a restaurateur from Manila, to come to Kabul.
"I like to take risks and reach out for new activities," says Mr. Taguiam, manager of Kabul's latest hot spot, an American style steakhouse called Hot and Sizzling. "I think this is a good time to invest. This is a healthy environment for investment. Kabul and Afghanistan in general are vibrant, and the government encourages investment."
The inside of Hot and Sizzling is designed to make diners forget they are in a conflict zone. In the entry, there's a small wrap-around bar made of bamboo and formica, held down by a quartet of regulars who would not be out of place at a truckstop in upstate New York. Actually, the term "regulars" is perhaps premature, because the restaurant has been operating only since December, and most of Kabul's aid workers and others are here only on six-month contracts.
Further into the restaurant there is a lounge with plush chairs, and four separate karaoke rooms, where diners can choose from nearly 7,000 songs in 12 different languages, including Taguiam's mother tongue, Tagalog. Taguiam also has plans to create an outdoor seating area, just inside the razor-wire topped gates, along with areas where guests can barbecue their own steaks, which are flown in frozen each week from the US.
"We want you to consider this your third home," says Taguiam, giving a tour of the restaurant. "The first home is your house. The second home is your office. The third home is here, where you can relax and can stay from morning to evening and nobody will rush you out."
Across town, there is also a new German restaurant called the Deutsche Hof, where one can get a magnificent pork chop, along with sauerkraut and mashed potatoes, for around $20. Budget minded diners can try the bratwurst for around $12.
At Lal Thai restaurant, you can get a delicious bowl of tom kha gai soup for $5, and a superb plate of Chicken Choo Chee curry, all served by waitresses from Thailand and Cambodia who speak little English, let alone either of the two national tongues, Farsi and Pashto. Pointing at the menu is encouraged.