Photo by Jonathan HoAfter a years-long drought, Orange County now hosts two Afghan restaurants: Orange's Amazing Kabob House and Kochee Kabob House, across the street from UC Irvine. It's a claustrophobic place despite the Irvine address; noisy with the hiss of rotating kebabs, crowded with college students and rolled-sleeves corporate types who gaze in gluttonous wonder as open flames lick the skewered treats.
Kochee Kabob might lack decorative charm and a relaxed ambiance, but its grilled meat is, well, hard to beat—eight kinds of kebabs, each paired with flurries of long-grained, nutty basmati rice and a salad that can't quite measure up. What cooks call a "chicken kebab with bone" is actually Cornish hen, a small bird sweeter and better tasting than a generic chicken, with a skin that crisps into a curl. The "boneless chicken" kebab is domestic chicken, but somehow just as delectable: skewered, slightly garlicky. Chicken makes another appearance as koobideh, a sort of Persian ground-meat sausage mixed with egg that's lean and light.
The Kochee Kabob parade continues with the salmon kebabs; even as its skin blackens, the fish retains a rosy tone. The eponymous house specialty—sweet, tender chunks of filet mignon—could sell for double digits and in smaller portions at any serious steakhouse; here, it's nine bucks. Those looking for a quick meal can order the loleh kebab, marinated chicken or beef wrapped in lettuce and lavash, the Persian bread that's thinner, healthier and more buttery than pita.
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Kochee Kabob's meats are flavorful enough without condiments, but there are two available: sour chili powder and a green hot sauce that's a fusion of a mint chutney and emerald Tapatío.
Every kebab is excellent here, but a cosmopolitan diner might reasonably ask: Where are the Afghan specialties—the pillowy naan, the lamb cooked in raisins and carrots, the wonderful noodle-based soups? But all the Afghan pride you need is in the name: Kochee, an Afghan tribe rightly famous for its independent streak. The Kochee never followed the Taliban's lead on burkhas for women; in a rare display of diplomacy, the Taliban never pressed the issue. But the Kochee now face harassment and death, like Iraq's Mandeans and many other ethnic groups in the two countries, thanks in part to the chaos caused by the impulsive American invasion. It probably won't be long until the Kochee, like the Illini and Incas of vanquished countries past, will exist only in history books—or as the name of your lunch special.
KOCHEE KABOB HOUSE, 4143 CAMPUS DR., STE. 195, IRVINE, (949) 854-0206.