a spread of brightly colored Afghan food
Credit: Yijun Pan for Chicago Reader

You have to be fast to eat the seekh kabob at Helmand.

“If it gets cold it’s going to be like rubber,” says Wahid Tanha, the owner and chef of this new Afghan restaurant in Albany Park. No matter what else comes to the table, “the first thing you have to do is eat it right away.”

That’s because this dish, which announces itself with a warm cinnamon-scented breeze before it lands in front of you, is radically different from the cylindrical ground beef variants you’d encounter in your finer Pakistani restaurants. Instead, Tanha skewers chunks of boneless lamb alternated with thick slices of lamb fat and grills them until they start singing. “Without the fat it’s not going to be Afghan seekh kabob,” he says.

He unskewers the lamb on a thin bed of lavash plated next to an enormous mountain of long-grain basmati rice studded with raisins and slivered carrots. Because the decadence and luxury of the fat are fleeting, you’ll want to pinch them up between folds of the flatbread, maybe swipe them through some mint-flecked yogurt or cilantro-mint chutney, and gobble them down before attending to the rice—the cumin-and-cardamom-scented national dish of Afghanistan known as kabuli pulao.

Tanha, who is 38, learned to make these dishes growing up in his father’s two Kabul restaurants, but this is the first time he’s cooked them professionally since he left home in 2001, shortly before September 11. He was granted asylum in the UK and landed in the northeast in Newcastle upon Tyne, where he managed Turkish, Persian, Bangladeshi, and Italian restaurants.  

Wahid Tanha and Maria Kharot. Credit: Yijun Pan for Chicago Reader

In 2006, after he met and married Maria Kharot, a first-generation Chicagoan whose parents emigrated from Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, the couple settled here. Tanha drove limos at night, mostly cooking at home for Kharot and their four kids, but he never intended to restrict his talents to the family. “I always wanted to open up a restaurant,” he says. “It was like a dream for me.”

There were no limos to drive during the first year of the pandemic, so Tanha sharpened his skills at home. “He had a lot of time to experiment with a lot of the different kabobs, and we got really spoiled at home,” says Kharot, who runs her own title company and is a managing partner in a realty group. “I think COVID kicked it up a big notch for him. It really gave him that drive.”

Afghan food is a convergence of Persian, northern Indian, central Asian, and Chinese influences, often centered around those enormous piles of rice, which are prepared in a multitude of variations. Chicago’s been home to Afghan restaurants here and there over the years, and there are a handful of kabob-focused casual spots around now, though the longest running and most established is Kabul House in Evanston.

Helmand isn’t even the first Chicago restaurant to adopt the name of Afghanistan’s largest and southernmost province and the Bronze Age cradle of its culture. Kharot grew up in Wrigleyville not far from the first Helmand—and the city’s first Afghan restaurant—owned by a half brother of Afghanistan’s former president Hamid Karzai. After he closed it in the early 90s, Ahmed Wali Karzai went on to become a controversial politician in his own right, until he was assassinated by his own bodyguard, allegedly on behalf of the Taliban.

The couple say they’re frequently asked if there’s a relationship to the original. There isn’t. They chose the name to signal a sense of history, culture, and elegance—but also unity. “It’s the original province of Afghanistan,” says Kharot, whose family is Pashtun, the largest ethnic group in the country. Tanha “is Tajik. If you know a lot about Afghanistan, there’s a lot of ethnic tension. We want to show Afghanistan can be unified, because our marriage is a unity of the different ethnicities.”

The couple opened in February in the original location of the Persian Noon-O-Kabob, which began expanding a block north seven years ago.

As expressed at Helmand, kabuli pulao (or plain white, or dill-flecked rice—but why?) accompanies more than a dozen kabobs, the names of which largely won’t be unfamiliar to anyone who’s visited the neighborhood’s entrenched Persian restaurants. (He buys all his meat from the neighboring Lebanese Meat Market.) These platters are dramatic and thrilling, but it’s Tanha’s interpretation of a dozen or so appetizers that really demonstrate the arresting vividness of his platings. You can see it best with two iconic Afghan dumplings: ground beef stuffed mantu, and the scallion and leek-filled aashak. For the latter, Tanha pools a luminescent tomato-infused oil on the plates and drizzles it with yogurt before assembling the dumplings topped with a tomatoey red bean sauce and a shower of dried mint and paprika. For the mantu, he starts with the yogurt and drizzles the oil on top before settling the dumplings with a top note of tomato-lentil sauce.

The boranee banjan are given a similar treatment, except these thin slices of fried eggplant are so creamy and delicate they almost melt into the sauces. You could make a formidable feast with these appetizers alone, along with the garlicky sauteed spinach sabzee; or kadu, steamed butternut squash drizzled in honey, yogurt, and mint.

For now Tanha outsources his naan (and pita), but his bolani, deep-fried flatbreads stuffed with potato, makes a good delivery vehicle for the sauces left behind on some of these smaller dishes.

Tanha also offers a trio of korma; stewy chicken or lamb karahi sautéed with caramelized vegetables and tomatoes, though the kofta korma—intensely beefy meatballs—are probably one of the more unique entrée-sized plates on the menu.

Helmand’s BYOB for now, but if you’re keeping dry, complimentary glass flutes of black or green tea keep apace. And while tart pomegranate juice can cut the richness on the palate, the ideal lacto-fermented digestive aid for a typical meaty feast is a glass of cold doogh.  

4661 N. Kedzie

Tanha’s still fine-tuning his menu. For dessert, he’s just added firnee, the classic cardamom-rosewater-infused custard. You should look out for the occasional appearance of Afghan-style haleem, the slow-cooked, labor-intensive meaty wheat stew. And one of the most striking plates, the northern-derived Uzbeki pulao is, for now, only a Saturday night special. For this, he simmers a lamb shank until it’s falling from the bone, then cooks the rice in the meat’s braising liquid until it absorbs all its rendered flavor and fat, before nestling the lamb under the grains and sending it to the dining room.

Rivaling the Afghan seekh kabob for its majesty and richness, it’s worth marking your calendar for. And there’s no hurry to finish.

During Ramadan, which began Wednesday, Tahna is offering free iftar: dates and fruit for those looking for a small bite to break the fast at sundown. On May 3, the couple will celebrate their grand opening with a ribbon cutting ceremony.