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Photograph by Noelle Luchino
Orient Expression : Tasty dishes from Khyber Pass, clockwise from lower left: chicken tikka kebab, kabu li pullao, kadu and tandoori quail.

Spell of the Silk Road

Spicy stand-out dishes and plenty of room to spread out make Khyber Pass in downtown Santa Cruz a group destination.

By Christina Waters

Several friends had urged me to get on over to the new Afghan/Pakistani restaurant at the western end of Pacific Avenue, and so I finally did. After two months in business, Khyber Pass is still gauging the tempo of its dining clientele. This is no easy feat given the fickleness of summer grazing patterns and the fact that this friendly restaurant stays open continuously from lunch through dinner. Spacious and clean, the new home of northern Indian cuisine is punctuated with some Afghan recipes as well--and this is great news for fans of the curry-scented dishes of mountainous South Asia.

Jack and I have eaten our weight in fine Afghan food, both in California and on the East Coast, and we craved something laced with cardamom, chiles and chutney. We found a distinctly casual setup at Khyber Pass, where you survey the menu above the counter, order your food, pay and take a number--plus your tableware--and find a table. A study in beige tilework, Khyber Pass is visually austere and cries out for a few green plants or some artwork on the walls that isn't also beige. But the Middle Eastern raga rock playing in the background almost made up for the complete lack of ambience. Jack thought $30 was a bit steep for lunch for two in a place that dispenses with tablecloths and uses paper napkins and vintage cutlery. We waited quite a while--the cashier was also the waitress--but eventually our custom-prepared lunch dishes arrived.

Jack's lamb korma ($7.99) was tender and arrived in a small braising dish, along with our side order of prune chutney ($1.99). Let me say right off the bat that I would walk a mile--though not necessarily at this end of town--for another dish of this outstanding condiment. More like a bowl of sweet preserved plums than dried prunes, the chutney worked miracles with the rather mild-flavored lamb, as well as my gigantic platter of chicken biryani, one of the great dishes of north Indian cookery. It was all of $7.99--and money well spent. Loaded with the haunting complexity of spices that made me think of Frank Herbert's Dune, the dish built its power on a base of saffron-tinged basmati rice, to which were added lavish pieces of simmered chicken breast and fat chunks of potato. The top was crowned with browned, crispy onions, but the interior was the stuff of trances. Garlic, ginger, turmeric, cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, black pepper--all intermingled in each bite, infused with enough firepower to launch a rocket. Jack was in an advanced state of bliss consciousness as he murmured, "You go inside the flavors, into the spices themselves." He had a point, especially when we added some of the excellent yogurt and mint raita, plus a squirt of the house tamarind chutney (which arrived near the very end of the meal).

We also inhaled a generous portion of one of my all-time favorite Pakistani classics, the indestructible palak paneer ($6.50). Slow-cooked spinach is laced with garlic, tomatoes and cubes of mild cheese for a truly authentic veggie dish of the Asian high country. Again, this was sensational with the cool yogurt and pungent tamarind sauce. Hot, sweet and sticky--where have I heard that before? Fat wedges of perfectly grilled naan made the perfect scoops for every bit of the succulent spinach and lamb sauces. Actually, this plump flat bread would be great all by itself.

Had the service been as good as the food--it was very slow, almost stubbornly casual, and I never received my "house-made hot green tea"--I would easily start recommending the authentic Afghan/Pakistani foods of Khyber Pass to all my friends. Well, to all of them who do not like to consume a cold beer or a crisp sauvignon blanc with their spicy foods. Remember that huge and righteous dish of chicken biryani at Khyber Pass the next time you're feeling stressed and in need of a potent, authentic spice fix.

Khyber Pass Restaurant

Address: 810 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz

Phone: 831.423.3400

Hours: Open daily 11am-10pm

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