Khyber Pass Cafe (St Paul, MN)

A recent trip for a conference in Minneapolis gave me plenty of opportunities to both check up on some of the new happenings in the Twin Cities dining scene, and revisit more than a few of my old favorites. In this case, I was heading out to dinner with Prof. Terry Simon, my PhD adviser, and his wife Nancy, who were kind enough to take me to an old favorite that I hadn’t visited for many years: Khyber Pass Cafe. I rather liked Khyber Pass as a graduate student (scary how events when I was in Graduate School include things happening almost 25 years ago). At the time, Khyber Pass was an established small cafe on St Clair Ave a few blocks east of Macalester College, and was a notable exception to the generally “American” food offerings of most of the local places (Groveland Tap, the now-defunct St Clair Broiler, etc). But the owners, who had come to the Twin Cities and opened Khyber Pass in the early 80s after leaving Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion. The Afghani offerings on their menu were a welcome addition to St Paul’s up and coming food scene, and Khyber Pass got a lot of good coverage in the food media.

Well, a few changes have happened at Khyber Pass since I lived in the area. The big change is location; someplace around a decade ago Khyber Pass moved to Snelling and Grand, moving into the same building as the original Dunn Bros. coffee (which, interestingly, is a separate business from the now large Dunn Bros. chain). I actually like the spot a bit more, it’s a bit more open and airy than the old St Clair location, but it’s still got the same overall feel.

Menu-wise, Khyber Pass has expanded a bit from the menu I remember, supplementing the selection of lamb and chicken kabobs with a good selection of Afghani-style curry dishes as well; indeed, all three of us opted for curried lamb in one form or another. I opted for the sabzee korma, which is basically lamb curry served atop a bed of spiced spinach, that served over a bed of rice. Those that know my Indian food preferences know that I’ve got a particular fondness for the combination of curry and spinach, so I couldn’t resist this. And the result was quite flavorful: several large tender chunks of very lean and flavorful lamb nestled into a boldly-spiced (but not particularly hot) curry sauce, over a nice bed of spinach and rice. Each bite allowed me to scoop up some rice and spinach, and get a nice combination of flavors.

My hosts Terry and Nancy had similar dishes, Terry opting for the aloo korma (similar to my dish, but with potatoes), and Nancy opting for the baanjaan chalau, which was a braised lamb dish with eggplant and a rich tomato sauce that was quite aromatic. I’m generally not much of an eggplant fan, but the aroma alone had me second-guessing this decision; I may have to break my eggplant rule on a future visit.

Rounding out the meal was dessert, we opted to split a serving of baklava three ways, and get a few bowls of daygcha: a cardamom and rose scented rice pudding with pistachios and walnuts. This was a nice dessert: the overall texture was quite creamy and smooth, with both the rose and cardamom adding different aromatic notes to it, and the nuts adding a bit of earthiness. I enjoy not-too-sweet desserts, and this was a the perfect counterpoint to the baklava.

Overall, I’m really happy that, decades later, Khyber Pass continues to serve up flavorful and different Afghani food in St Paul. Hopefully they continue to do so for years to come.

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