The Long Road
By Nathan Conz, Staff Writer

The Shish Kebab House of Afghanistan is not the Amiri family's first venture into Hartford-area restaurant ownership. In the mid-1980s, the Amiris owned and operated a fried chicken place on Albany Avenue.

"A lot of people remember that place because of the radio commercials: 'Don't cook tonight. Call Chicken Delight,'" says Aaron Sarwar, the 18-year-old son of Halima Sarwar, whose family got out of the fried chicken business and opened up the Shish Kebab House of Afghanistan on Franklin Avenue in 1988.

Thanks to good, home-cooked Afghan meals and a strong repeat customer base, the family has been there ever since. Before his mother took over in 2002, the restaurant was owned by Mousa Amiri, Sarwar's uncle. Another uncle, Rahim Amiri, owned it for a brief period before that.

Quame Amiri, Aaron's grandfather, was the first owner of the restaurant. He was born in Afghanistan and lived in Kabul where he worked for the government. "When the Soviets came in," in 1979 Sarwar says of his grandfather, "they saw him as one of the patriotic people. So, they took him and a couple of his oldest sons and threw them in jail."

Sarwar says that his grandfather and uncles talked their way out of jail, and, when they got out, saw things had gotten far worse. Quame got the family together and told them to pack like they were going on a short trip -- just a few changes of clothes and not too much money -- and to leave everything else exactly the way it was. Soon after, the whole family left for India, where they would stay from 1981 to 1983.

The family came over to America gradually. Sarwar's grandfather and a couple of his uncles were the first to arrive, with the others soon to follow. At first they lived in New York City and got by working whatever jobs they could.

"They came with just whatever they had in their pockets and a couple hundred dollars. They didn't know a single person here. They just got off the plane and started walking," Sarwar says. They spoke almost no English.

The family decided to move to the Hartford area, Sarwar says, after taking a trip to a nearby park.

For this writer, stepping into an Afghan restaurant was big deal. Trying new things isn't my specialty and adventuresome eating usually means that I've left the special sauce on my Big Mac. Nevertheless, Sarwar was confident that I'd like Afghan food. He ordered me a small plate of samosas (deep fried fritters filled with spiced eastern peas, potatoes and vegetables) for an appetizer, and a chicken shammi kebab dinner for the main course.

I enjoyed just about everything put in front of me, especially the samosas. The chicken shammi (ground chicken meat mixed with spices) was seasoned perfectly and the kabeli palow (flavored rice topped with almonds, raisins and carrots) was just the right amount of sweet.

Of course, I'm still not sure that I like Afghan food. It'd be quite possible for me to have just enjoyed this particular restaurant, and thus, only like very good Afghan food. After all, the Shish Kebab House has enjoyed its fair share of great reviews from critics, including one printed on the back of the menu from this newspaper. Unfortunately, it's going to be hard to find another Afghan restaurant in the area for comparison. Sarwar believes that his family's business is the only Afghan restaurant in the state.

Because of that, Afghan immigrants sometimes seek out the restaurant and the family that owns it for help finding their way in a foreign country. Sarwar, who also speaks fluent Dari (one of the languages of Afghanistan), says his family will sometimes help new immigrants -- by translating their important documents (like a letter from a landlord, etc.), giving them jobs at the restaurant to their sons and daughters or just taking them along on trips to parks and beaches.

Aaron Sarwar recently began his freshman year at the University of Hartford, where he is majoring in mechanical engineering. And that fact worries this writer, who just found a new restaurant and hopes it will continue for a few more generations. Will a young man with an engineering degree want to take over a restaurant when his mother decides to retire?

Aaron Sarwar says the Shish Kebab House of Afghanistan has always been a family business, and with a next generation that includes three siblings, more cousins than he can count and himself, he affirms: "It will remain a family business."