Shalah Wadood is a woman who radiates care, the kind of restaurant owner whose permanently etched-on smile is genuine, who asks how your meal is not just out of formality, but to ensure you are enjoying her Afghan dishes at Chili Chutney to their fullest potential. I learned this the hard way, right after spilling a full glass of water on my meal.
Okay, so it wasn't me, but rather intern Javier Cabral, the wunderkind food writer known as the Glutster. He's an East LA guy who has spent this past semester learning our many Orange County culinary treasures, which he wrote up on our Stick a Fork In It blog. Javier had never traveled to Lake Forest. I wanted to show him how the city had changed, food-wise, in the past decade, and I hadn't visited Chili Chutney in a while, so off we went a couple of weeks back in my tut-tutting VW Bus. We got off Interstate 5 at El Toro Road; I pointed out the way to Break of Dawn. We went east on El Toro—I gestured toward Nina's, Pinoy Pam's Best and other great Lake Forest dives. Before we walked in, I explained that Chili Chutney used to be an Italian-Persian eatery that was okay—what now existed was much better.
The lunch began with a wonderful bowl of aush (noodle soup spiked with yogurt and dried mint leaves, fragrant and delicate), and then came the avalanche: golden-fried potato samosas; a smoky, almost caramelized eggplant dip; toasted slices of leek borani, stuffed Afghan flatbread we ran through a deep bowl of yogurt dip. We dunked everything in Wadood's already-legendary chutneys—one emerald-green due to the jalapeños she minces for the condiment, but the better one a searing-red version as bright as pimiento peppers and as sweet; while hellish, its lingering, nearly cloying sweetness will motivate you to buy one of the bottles Wadood keeps in her soda fridge. Javier and I stuffed ourselves while waiting for the piéce de résistance: mantu, ground-beef dumplings messily hiding under meat sauce and sour cream, the juicy beef enlivened by green onions, the cases nearly sheer.
And then Javier dumped the glass of water on it. I frantically gobbled as many of the dozen mantus as possible before the water dissolved their delicate balance. Wadood saw our desperation.
“Don't worry—I'll take care of it,” she said. Just 10 minutes later, our stomachs stuffed, our honor sullied, she appeared with another order of mantu. A full order. On the house. Don't force Wadood to repeat her altruism with ustedes by repeating Javier's error, but rather pay it forward by ordering the best dumplings in the world. And be careful with your elbows.
This column appeared in print as “Spicy Charity.”