You know that I prefer to eat my meals at cheap, independently owned restaurants… many of which are in a perpetual struggle to survive, no matter how good the food is. Of the restaurants I’ve visited in the past year, at least three (Chilean restaurant Barros Luco, Canadian spot T Poutine, and Vietnamese take-out joint Boi-To-Go) have closed; I’ve had my eye on several others (Iraqi restaurant La Kabbr and Algerian-owned Habib’s) that kicked the bucket before I had a chance to try them. The restaurant business is always absolutely brutal, even in the best of times.
And then there are cases when the restaurant business is especially cruel: 2nd Avenue in the Upper East Side has been completely ripped apart by subway-related construction since sometime in 2010. Foot traffic along 2nd Avenue is down 50%, according to local merchants, who (unsuccessfully) begged their elected officials to create a sales-tax-free zone in the construction area. In all likelihood, the construction will cause trouble for a damned long time: depending on who you ask, the 2nd Avenue subway line won’t be operational until sometime in 2014 or 2015—at the very earliest.
It seems that Afghan Kebab House #2 has been hit particularly hard by the construction mayhem on 2nd Avenue. I figured that the restaurant would be relatively quiet at lunchtime, but I was a little bit disturbed to see that it was completely empty. We arrived toward the end of lunch hour, but it still was odd that there wasn’t a soul in sight, and the waiter looked surprised when I walked in. My friend and I lingered over a two-hour meal… and still didn’t see a soul walk into the restaurant, other than a well-dressed young woman with an Eastern European accent, who was just looking for work as a server. (Unsurprisingly, Afghan Kebab House #2 isn’t hiring.)
Our food was pretty good, if a bit overpriced. We ordered kabuli palau (often spelled qabili palau), the national dish of Afghanistan. It was a tasty mound of ridiculously tender lamb chunks, served in a pilaf of brown basmati rice, raisins, carrots, and sliced almonds. We also ordered a kebab combo platter, which included a lamb tikka kebab, a beef kofta kebab (ground beef), and a chicken kebab, accompanied by more brown basmati rice and topped with more raisins. The lamb and chicken kebabs were solid but unremarkable; the beef, however, was beautifully loaded with fresh herbs, and had a nice, greenish hue to it. And everybody loves spicy green meat, right?
The food was perfectly good, but I smelled an unfortunate whiff of desperation in the inflated prices of our meals: we paid $21.95 for the kabuli palau, and $18.95 for the kebab combo. It seems that the restaurant has dramatically raised its rates since the construction started: I’d grabbed a takeout menu from the restaurant last year—just before construction started to wreak havoc on neighborhood businesses—and the kebab combo was listed at $13.50. A (presumably more recent) listing at menupages lists the kebab combo at $16.95 and the kabuli palau at $18.95. The place appears to be bumping up its prices, presumably in a desperate attempt to compensate for the falloff in business—and that’s never a good sign.
To be fair, Afghan Kebab House II is a pretty cute little cave of a restaurant, and I can see how it might be a worthwhile place to enjoy a long, calm night out with a few friends. And the food was perfectly good, if not mind-blowing; if you’re looking for an interesting, relaxed place in the Upper East Side, Afghan Kebab House II might be as appealing as anything in the neighborhood—even with the (arguably) bloated prices.
But it’s hard not to worry about the independent restaurants in the neighborhood—including the always-wonderful Burmese spot Café Mingala—when foot traffic has been decimated by the din of heavy machinery. Sure, once the new subway opens, there will be a huge boom in the neighborhood. Until then, our Afghan and Burmese friends will just have to muddle along and hope for the best.
Afghan Kebab House II
1345 2nd Avenue, Manhattan
Subway: 68th Street—Hunter College (6 train)