The view outside Nimroz in Lake Forest right now is out of a New England township come fall. Deciduous trees are losing their leaves; their evergreen cousins stand tall, if a bit grayer. The hills across the street, on the other side of El Toro Road, gently roll up toward the horizon, then plunge into the unknown; buildings and houses on this landscape are angular, unique, nothing at all like the usual South County cookie-cutter dread.
It's all a façade: the strip mall that hosts Nimroz is desolate. An empty space is the Afghan restaurant's neighbor; next to that is a dry cleaner that went out of business recently, as evidenced by the still-hanging sign outside and empty racks inside. Nimroz is on the section of El Toro Road that's more accurately known as County Route 18, where cars zoom by (the speed limit is 50 mph), not bothering to even glance. Go in at any time, and it'll be empty. Workers are inevitably tuned into a South Asian soap opera and won't even notice you for a good minute—that's how unaccustomed they are to diners.
And it's a damn shame because the food is spectacular. Though the menu is small and mostly devoted to tried-and-true kebabs, it's the Afghan specialties that deserve the long, lonely drive to Nimroz. Meals start with a complimentary cup of aush, a chilled chickpea soup heavy on the dill, chutney, mint and chili flakes, an icy-hot combo as electrifying as aguachile. All Afghan meals need an order of mantu, the country's legendary dumplings, fat, beef-filled twirls topped with yogurt and meat sauce, then laced by more of the green chutney. An order of mantu will leave you stuffed, so it's better to come here with three pals to split it, then tuck into Nimroz's jewel: Qabili pallow, a mountain of brown rice containing steamed carrot slivers, raisins and pistachios hiding lamb chunks. Nimroz serves you so much pallow that when you sink your spoon into the rice, an avalanche of the pilaf comes tumbling off the plate—it's inevitable, so you might as well line the table with lavash to make impromptu tacos.
Nimroz, 21991 El Toro Rd., Lake Forest, (949) 380-4222.
Dessert is another stunner: firnee, a type of custard reeking of rosewater, cardamom and pistachios, each velvety spoonful as jolting a treat as you'll taste. Nimroz is usually out of firnee, but it offers the same basic ingredients in a rice pudding: equally great, equally worthy of a visit to this desolate land.
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This column appeared in print as "Afghan Holiday."