Kabul House, Chicagoland’s only Afghan restaurant, plans to open later this month in Evanston, where it began.
The popular eatery started out nearly 20 years ago sharing a narrow storefront with a carryout pizzeria on Main Street. Now, having outgrown its latest digs in downtown Skokie, Kabul House is settling into the spacious former Chicken & Waffles building at 2424 Dempster St.
Akmal Qazi (pronounced kah-zee), 31-year-old son of the restaurant’s founder, owns and manages the business. With the move, Mr. Qazi has created a larger restaurant and brought his flourishing catering operation back from Chicago.
Like the family who started it, Kabul House has been a migrant. Journeying from its birthplace, it landed in several spots before circling back to Evanston.
The story begins with Akmal’s father, Abdul, who was 19 and a physics teacher when the Soviets invaded his homeland in 1979. He left, immigrating first to Italy, where he remained for several years. “He loved the food,” his son says. But he continued on to the U.S., where his first job was washing dishes. Hard work helped him parlay his science background into a managerial position.
He invested in real estate and, with the purchase of La Rosa Pizzeria on Evanston’s Main Street, became a restaurateur. Perhaps it appealed to his taste for Italy. In any case, the long hours he spent there left too little time for his wife and family, who lived in Schaumburg. Akmal says in 1995, when he was 10, his mom started sending him and his younger brother, Zaki, to the restaurant on weekends.
It took a couple years, he says, but the two boys “got tired of pizza and missed home cooking.” To mollify his children, Abdul began recreating from memory the dishes his mother had prepared back in Afghanistan. “Customers would notice the aroma,” says Akmal, and his father would give them plates of food to taste. “Afghans are known as the most hospitable people in the world,” Akmal says.
“The food got better and better,” he says, joking that he and Zaki were their dad’s “test dummies.” Within nine months, he says his father had built a following and realized he was onto something. When the owner of the Mediterranean restaurant next door to La Rosa died, he took it over. The year was 1999. The Qazi family moved to Skokie and, Akmal says, the tentative Afghan restaurant “grew like wildfire.”
People loved the mild, fresh-tasting food – steamed mantoo dumplings, filled with scallions and leeks and lightly topped with yogurt-mint and tomato-meat sauces; murgh, the chicken kabob; kadu, sweet baby pumpkin cooked with honey and onion and served with yogurt-mint sauce; and Kabuli palau, the national dish, braised lamb shank under seasoned rice garnished with thin strips of caramelized carrots and raisins.
Kathy Kastilahn, who lives with her husband, Bill, in the neighborhood where the restaurant was located, remembers those early days, when they could walk in the door of what was called the Afghan Annex and carry out pizza – or a mouthwatering Afghan specialty. The Kastilahns became fans of the cuisine, and, like so many customers of Abdul (whom they knew as John), have been following him ever since.
The Annex’s popularity led Abdul to sign a lease on a larger space on Dempster Street in Skokie, just west of McCormick Boulevard. A grand opening was scheduled for Sept. 14, 2001.
But on Sept. 11, Al Qaeda terrorists brought down the World Trade Center, and Muslims in America held their breath. Akmal remembers his dad’s saying, “We’re finished.”
Instead, the media flocked to interview him, and Akmal says, “The public liked his answers.” Supportive diners flooded the newsworthy eatery, and Kabul House thrived. But it closed in 2007 after structural problems surfaced in the rented building.
Abdul left the restaurant business and turned to real estate. Akmal earned first an undergraduate and, in 2010, a master’s degree from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Abdul wanted his son to go to medical school, but Akmal says, “I saw myself as a businessman.” Besides, he says, those weekends at the Annex and his Afghan heritage had ingrained in him the idea of “doing something in the hospitality field.”
Kabul House rose again, at 4949 Oakton St. in Skokie; Akmal was 24 and in graduate school when he opened it. The restaurant grew busier and busier, and catering expanded so fast Akmal had to move it to Chicago in 2012. He branched out in 2015, partnering with a childhood friend to open a Cajun seafood restaurant in Skokie called Boilers.
Looking for a place to expand Kabul House and house the catering business, he bought the vacant building just a few blocks east of his Cajun restaurant and started construction – almost a total rehab – in November. The result is an exterior clad with marble-like porcelain tile and an interior flooded with light from new, arched windows.
There is an outdoor patio and indoors, a tea lounge serving desserts along with the typical Afghan beverage. The restaurant seats 140, more than double the Skokie venue. A large parking lot will be supplemented with valet parking if necessary.
Abdul, having introduced his native cuisine to his adopted country, returned to Afghanistan for the first time in 2013 at age 53 – 34 years after he left. His large family is still there and quite successful, Akmal says, though the Taliban killed two of Abdul’s brothers.
Akmal, who is proudly carrying on the tradition of a country he had never seen, paid his first visit in 2014, absorbing the culture and “picking up recipes and spices. It humbled me,” he says, “seeing how good our life is here.”