An Afghan restaurant owned by an Iranian, managed by a Bangladeshi targeting Chinese customers. What better way to capture the changing face of Flushing? The Kabul Kabab House, located at 42-51 Main Street, has been a staple of the neighborhood for nearly a quarter century and serving a diverse, though mostly South Asian, customer base. Today, sitting in the center of Flushing’s Chinatown, it finds itself grappling with how to appeal to the Chinese palate.
“The restaurant has been here longer than I’ve been alive,” says the energetic 23-year-old manager, Syed Bashar. “There were lots of South Asians in the neighborhood, up to even five years ago. Next door, on either side of us were Indian clothing stores, and now they are Chinese restaurants.” One need only look at the reviews on the back of the menu for a snapshot of the changing demographics. In a 1992 article from the now-defunct Flushing Times, the restaurant is described as “tucked…in a mostly Indian enclave”. Just two years later, The Daily News writes “It’s a surprise to come across Afghani [sic] food on Main St. in Flushing, where Koreans and Chinese have in recent years tightened their corner on the restaurant market.”
According to Syed, the majority of their customers have been Afghans, Iranians, Russians, Indians and Pakistanis, with lots of regulars who have been dining there once a week for ten years or more. “One day the regulars will be gone. Then who will come?” reflects Syed. “Right now, my task at hand is to increase the volume of guests who are Asian.”
He says that it’s most challenging to target customers who do not speak English. The new waiter, he hopes, will help bridge the gap for people who are not familiar with Middle Eastern/Central Asian food at all. On the Chinese menu, even the Time Out review on the cover is translated.
The changes are part of owner Shoreh Dorudi’s larger renovation plans to make Kabul Kabab House more competitive and modern. ”When the place first opened it was very Iranian, the food taste was geared to please the Iranian palates,” says Syed. “But with time, we’ve had to change our spices and adapt to the palates of the other customers from various other nations.” And so, the menu features traditional Afghan dishes like qabli pilau (kabab served with carrot- and raisin-drizzled rice), alongside typical Iranian dishes like koobideh (ground beef kabab), alongside grape leaves and hummus and an anonymous “vegetarian dish”. Syed gives a rundown of who likes what: the Russians love lambchops and green tea, the Iranians and Afghans love koobideh and green tea, Indians love fish, and the Chinese love lamb.
Indeed, the restaurant is endearingly old school. Two of the five full-time staff–the rice maker and the kabab maker–have been there since the beginning. The decorations are simple with vintage images of Afghanistan framed in gold. They don’t accept credit cards, and, until recently, they still offered fountain soda.
But much of this is set to change, according to Syed, with the owner’s plans of “modernizing” the restaurant. Changes to come include removing the arches and replacing them with more contemporary tile decorations, offering parking, and substituting the “sad and slow music with fun and fast music.” “We want to keep it ethnic,” says Syed, “but make it more modern.”