Sure, you might turn up to find the lights off and the doors closed, but if you can catch it open for business, The Afghan Restaurant on Lincoln Road offers an unparalleled culinary experience.
You can’t call a restaurant a hidden gem when it’s on one of Christchurch’s busiest roads. The Afghan Restaurant may be hiding in plain sight, but the real challenge is managing to find a time it’s open. The hours are erratic at best, as if at the whims of a cosmology mere humans can’t understand.
But if the doors are open, then you’re in for a unique experience. Abdul’s flaming skewers have inspired a passionate group of devotees who come together to share the vital information about when they can get their next fix.
The only order you need to place is how many people in your party – there’s no menu to endlessly deliberate over. I say that I’m just the one person, and sit alone at a table of six. About five minutes later, a party of 14 enters, and two other loners and I move to the one table around the back for a combined dining experience.
The decor is eclectic, shabby and charming – I don’t think it has changed since I was first here more than a decade ago. Most seats have a full view into the kitchen, where Abdul flame-grills dozens of kebabs at a time. The room fills with smoke, as an extractor tries to do its job in vain. Aside from the grills, there are just two giant pots: one is full of rice; the other, curry. When your meal is ready, you’re called to the counter.
Each meal comes in three parts: a bed of light, fluffy rice, topped with two kebabs (lamb and chicken); a side salad with lettuce, cucumber, jalapeños, olives and chilli sauce; and a chicken curry in a bowl. The two kebabs are the centrepiece, the Afghan restaurant’s signature. The chicken is spiced and cooked in a tandoor, before being threaded onto a skewer and grilled in the flames; the lamb kofta has a delicate, aromatic flavour.
I’ve not been to Afghanistan, and doubt whether I’ll be getting a chance in the near term, but this food is a reminder of the geography of the place; part of an east-west trade route for millennia, the very east of the Middle East meeting the west of Asia. The two drumsticks of chicken come in a sweet, tomato-based curry, not dissimilar to a butter chicken. The portions are generous to overwhelming. It would quite easily be enough to share between two, except this place doesn’t work that way. Takeaway containers are the order of the day. With there being only one thing to order, there’s only one price as well – $20 for the lot. For the larger groups, they bring out larger platters for sharing, but it’s exactly the same food, just presented slightly differently.
After my meal, I left feeling not just incredibly well fed, but also satisfied and… happy? Dining at the Afghan is such an interesting, charming experience. It’s the opposite of the highly polished, sterile one you get at so many flash places. It feels like you’ve been invited into Abdul’s kitchen for a meal, and once you’re there, you get to meet his friends and family too. I remember feeling like this the first time I discovered the place, more than a decade ago. I’d biked past it so many times and never seen it open so I assumed it had closed down. Salvation came from a friend who pointed me to the “Is the AFG Open” Facebook group. This is a group dedicated to just one thing – figuring out whether people can get their fix.
Greg Brown started the page with a mate about five years ago. He worked not far from the restaurant, and “once we figured out it was actually a restaurant (took a while!) we would go every other week for lunch”. Though he doesn’t live in Christchurch any more, he’s still an admin on the page, which is the best way of ascertaining whether you’re gonna get a feed or not.
Scrolling back through the posts, it’s people coming up with more and more creative ways to say the one thing: is it open? The frequency and the palpable hope in each post shows the devotion that Abdul has developed through his restaurant, and the ingenious marketing strategy that he has created, whether intentionally or otherwise.
The Afghan Restaurant isn’t going to be for everyone. There is only one menu option, and it’s full of meat, so that doesn’t help vegetarians much. You have no idea whether it’s going to be open for dinner until the late afternoon on any particular day, so it’d be hard to plan a date there. But as the passion shown by the unofficial Facebook page would attest, it’s one of the most special, satisfying dining experiences in the city, and if you’re lucky enough to be going by when the doors are open, it’s well worth pulling up a seat.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.