It may seem odd to name a restaurant on South Street after a street called Sansom.
But once you understand that the Hahsy family's journey here was really so much more than just moving their skewers and pawlaw rice pots a few blocks between the old and new locations of their Sansom Kabob House, it makes a world of sense.
This story began 30 years ago in the desert mountains of Pakistan, where Afghan-born Hamad Hahsy found himself a child soldier fighting with the mujahideen against Afghanistan's Soviet invaders. He was so scared at night, he would cry himself to sleep.
" 'Why am I here?' I'd wonder," Hahsy says. "But I was 14 and I had no choice."
When he finally did get to choose, Hahsy managed to emigrate to Philadelphia, where he dreamed of someday opening an Afghan restaurant like his uncle's back in Kabul. But first there were English lessons. And then a decade of earning money driving taxis.
Along the way, though, he never forgot the way his uncle taught him to make Afghan naan, perforating the whole wheat dough to keep the flatbread from puffing as it roasted to a pliant crispness against the tandoor wall. Neither did he forget the secrets to perfectly fluffy basmati pawlaw ("it first has to soak in water for at least five hours") or achieving a tender kabob ("onion juice is the thing").
By the time he and his wife, Sona, managed to find their first restaurant in 2002 - with the U.S. war in Afghanistan just a year old - it did not matter that it occupied a dark and rambling subterranean space tucked downstairs beneath a small sushi shop on the 1500 block of Sansom Street.
Fourteen years later, they had won a devoted Center City business district crowd with their flavorful skewers of meat, fresh-baked flatbreads, and yogurt-swirled scallion dumplings. And, as Sona puts it: "We worked really hard in that basement to have this new restaurant, so we like that name."
And so the Sansom Kabob House it remains, even if it now sits at 13th and South. The new space is a major step up - or, at least, ground level. The corner room feels crisp and new, with white-trimmed walls the color of earthy yellow dahl, dangling chandeliers, blouse-y Afghan curtains, and richly woven rugs on the dark wood floors. A raised platform near the rear with a low-rise table called a takht is a fun party zone for up to eight, provided they're good at eating while seated with legs crossed amid the pillows and cushions.
But what makes the new Sansom Kabob House such a keeper are the same qualities that endeared me to its former, more humble space: the personal pride and familial warmth that feels genuine both in the kitchen and dining room. Sona, her 16-year-old daughter, and a niece are the core of the service team.
But mostly what brings me back is Hamad's cooking, a repertoire of traditional Afghan standards at fair prices (under $18 a dinner entree), done with a homespun approach that highlights the rustic simplicity of the cuisine. Afghan cooking is similar in its basic template to Indian food, in that it features kabobs, rice platters, and vegetable-forward stews. But the spice combinations are less complex, the heat levels relatively mild, and the main ingredients themselves can take center stage.
There's nothing quite as uniquely satisfying as an ashak dumpling stuffed with wilted scallions and spinach on a plate just submerged in an orange puddle of lamb gravy streaked with yogurt and dusted mint. An even simpler version of that presentation, called kadu, can be startlingly good, the lamb gravy and yogurt embellishing sweet chunks of soft, steamed butternut squash. A meatier version of those dumplings called mantu (a cousin to Turkish manti) is stuffed with ground beef sparked with cinnamon, cumin, and garlic. But it's the subtlest touch - a ladling of yellow split-pea gravy over the top - that triggers it all with the firm texture of those toothy little peas.
Of course, a kabob shop needs to put its skewers where its name is. And the Hahsys deliver. The sleeper kabob here - and probably my favorite on the menu - is the chablee, which is essentially an Afghan burger, but the flattened patty of ground beef is electrified with ground chilies, onions, ginger, and coriander.
The kabobs featuring whole chunks of meat are also excellent - the lamb incredibly tender from a minimum 24-hour marinade in onion juice and garlic; the chicken similarly flavorful and moist, but also lit with the brightness of lemon. You can try a combo of several with the Sansom platter. Only the salmon kabobs were bland and disappointing, but then . . . fish cookery is not what I'd expect from a landlocked country.
This cuisine is built around hearty rustic stews and the sustenance of rice. The lamb qurma chalaw is a combination of the two, with chunks of stewed meat below a mound of rice akin to a biryani, but once again, with softer spicing (lots of cardamom) and sweet carrot shreds that let the tenderness of the lamb shine through.
The wide range of vegetable stews were fine, but a bit less exciting, with the vivid green crock of buttery sabzi spinach the favorite, followed by the earthy yellow lentil dahl (a thicker version of the soup), and a mashed eggplant so soft it almost has the texture of fruit. The red bean and cauliflower chalaw stews were forgettable.
The fried sambosa dumplings stuffed with potato and peas were also underwhelming, a half-crisped reflection of the kindred samosa in Indian cuisine. One starter not to miss, though, are the bulani. These flat pastry triangles stuffed with mashed potatoes and onions are griddled to a flaky crisp and, with their yogurt sauce, almost taste like Afghan pierogies.
The fresh hummus plate would be easy to miss, too. But it's exceptionally fresh and lemony, and with a dimpled surface dotted by little wells of good olive oil, it's the ideal showcase for Hamad's fresh naan. This is not the soft and pillowy naan I've come to seek in better Indian restaurants. No, by its whole wheat nature and groove-lined surface, this bread is meant to be the stuff of sturdy sustenance, capable of surviving rough times and arduous journeys.
Hamad's path from the war-torn mountains of Pakistan to kabob shop ownership in Philadelphia was certainly that. How fitting, then, that the family naan recipe - and the Sansom Kabob House as a whole - is better than ever on South Street.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Besito in Ardmore.
SANSOM KABOB HOUSE (2 BELLS OUT OF 4)
1300 South St., 215-751-9110; sansomkabobhouseonsouth.com
The street address may be different, but the name remains the same, and so does the quality of the traditional Afghan cooking at the Sansom Kabob House. A significant upgrade in ambiance marks progress for chef Hamad Hahsy and his wife, Sona, as restaurateurs, after 14 years of earning a loyal clientele in their basement space on Sansom Street. But it's the steady family feel of the service and homespun quality of the cooking here, especially the tender kabobs, yogurt-sauced dumplings, rice platters, and fresh whole wheat naan, that continue to distinguish this pleasant BYOB as one of the city's unique international values.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Ashak (scallion dumplings); kadu pumpkin; bulani; hummus; yellow split-pea soup; whole meat kabobs (lamb; chicken); ground beef chablee kabob; mantu; qablee palaw; firni.
BYOB Lager beer is the classic choice, but Belgian-style ales can be a better match for a cuisine rich with aromatic spice.
WEEKEND NOISE The room was rarely busy during my visits, but it peaked reasonably in the low-80 decibels. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less).
IF YOU GO Lunch Monday through Saturday, noon-2:30 p.m.; Dinner Monday through Saturday, 2:30-10 p.m. Closed Sunday.
Dinner entrees, $12.99-$17.99
All major cards.
Street parking only.