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all words: Logan Hollers, all photos: Sarah Gerrity

Local 16 chef/owner Aman Ayoubi never set out to craft an Afghani restaurant. Instead, his location near the intersection of U and 16th Streets dictated a more, shall we say…traditional…DC cuisine. Sandwiches, burgers, wings, and pizza made up the bulk of his menu – safe and steady was the course. Ho hum.

The recent explosion of ethnic (and often exotic) cuisine in DC, however, convinced Mr. Ayoubi that the time was ripe for change. “I wanted to get back to authentic, family recipes – food that I love,” he said. The new menu features traditional dishes from Afghanistan, and incorporates influences from the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and Asia.

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His mother was the impetus for the switch – per the menu, “The recipes are adaptations from Aman’s mother Benazir and allow you to taste a variety of Afghanistan’s favorite cooking.” Mr. Ayoubi told BYT that he wants to make sure the recipes he loves (and which he declined to share, naturally) were preserved after he was gone.

Without the hassle of opening a brand new restaurant, the chef has returned to his roots, completely revamping the menu to include Afghani dishes designed both to respect tradition and to appeal to the young and hungry.

BYT was invited to sample some of the upcoming menu, and initial results are promising.

The new menu has yet to debut permanently, so there were (as can be expected) some kinks that need worked out. That said, it’s easy for one to experience a new cuisine and eat quite well.

First off, skip the mashawa – although the lamb soup is sufficiently meaty and rustic, a heavier hand with the salt shaker would go a long way toward making the beans (all four varieties) and tender lamb pop that much more. A diner needs to consider stomach space, after all.

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The ashak, a leek and spring onion ravioli, suffers from the same deficiency – subtle tweaks (salt? citrus?) to the split pea Bolognese will no doubt push this dish from simply filler to delicious.

But let’s get real here – delicious meat in a wrapper is pretty goddamn great no matter the topping. If one’s looking to get down on some Afghani stuffed pasta, be sure to get (at least) one order of the mantu, a ground beef and onion steamed dumpling finished with a mint yogurt and carrot sauce. Unabashedly Middle Eastern, the delicate dumplings blend savory hits of ginger and turmeric that meld perfectly with the sweet notes of cinnamon and an outstanding creamy carrot sauce. Definitely a must-order.

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Another great start is the restaurant’s bolani. Picture a blend between a calzone and a crepe, and you’ve got the idea. Thinly grilled housemade flatbread is stuffed with either pumpkin and onion (nah) or leek and scallion (yep!). The latter combines leeks, scallions, and cilantro and is folded over to make a thin sandwich-esque dish that’s elevated even more by a dip in the bright green (and eminently cravable) spicy cilantro sauce.

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Vegetarians, fear not – more than just the bolani’s got you covered. A Veggie Sampler brings three bowls: creamy daal, offset with crunchy fried garlic chips and the oomph of fresh ginger; roasted cauliflower and potato, with a deep, stewed spicy tomato sauce; and a bitter, garlicky sautéed spinach, perfect as a refresher between heavier dishes. More of the housemade grilled bread helps sop up what’s left. The best part? Easily feeds two, and costs $7. Seriously.

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The chef, of course, saves the best for last. Grilled lamb chops combine a petite size with a depth of flavor of a cut twice as big. BYT’s lovely photographer (twice, I might add) actually put down her fork and said, “Wow. Oh yeah, I’m into this.” Couldn’t have put it better myself. Though the rice portion that accompanies (studded with saffron, julienned carrot, and raisins, and redolent of cinnamon and cloves) is big enough for two (okay, fine – three), I can guarantee more than one battle will be had over that third lamb lollipop. Rich, minerally, and perfectly cooked, the lamb, more than any other dish, proves the chef’s prowess on the wood-fired grill.

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I’m not a sweets guy (cheese plate, ftw), but I’ll admit – I haven’t had a better rendition of baklava. Crisp, subtly sweet, and loaded with pistachio, it sounds an excellent finishing note to any Local 16 outing.

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Mr. Ayoubi wants to get back to his Afghani roots, and wants to ensure he maintains and respects the delicious traditions of an ancient, yet often unknown, food culture. So far, it appears he’s on the right path.

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