Category Archive for: ‘Woody Weingarten’

Helmand Palace in San Francisco offers scrumptious Afghani food

Owner-executive chef Haytham Hassan stirs up one of many tasty dishes at Helmand Palace. Photo by Nancy Fox.

Owner-executive chef Haytham Hassan stirs up one of many tasty dishes at Helmand Palace. Photo by Nancy Fox.

I could possibly dig deep into history to find my excuse.

And borrow the late comedian Flip Wilson’s catchphrase from the mouth of his iconic character, Geraldine Jones: “The devil made me do it.”

But I won’t.

I will, instead, apologize to Marin County food critic Leslie Harlib, not for poaching the main ingredient for Eggs Benedict but for wandering onto her territory.

I couldn’t help myself.

Helmand Palace, an Afghani restaurant on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco, is that extraordinary.

I first discovered the place — now owned by executive chef Haytham Hassan but then a little way down Broadway from the Carol Doda sign that trumpeted her silicone-injected boobs in gaudy neon — in the 1990s when I toiled as Managing Editor of a weekly newspaper, the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California.

The Helmand, as it was labeled then, became my favorite.

My wife and I would steer groups of four to six friends there fairly regularly so we could share each other’s choices.

And then, roughly a decade ago, a hefty piece of Telegraph Hill above it broke loose and smashed into the back of the eatery.

As well as several other businesses.

Helmand moved to Van Ness. And I settled down in Marin.

So my love affair with the restaurant went on hiatus.

Not long ago, though, my wife and I were afternooning in a city museum and were booked for a little night musical. We had a little spare time between the two.

“Why not try Helmand again,” she suggested.

“Sure,” I replied.

And it was as terrific as we both remembered.

Every dish.

Every forkful, in fact.

We started with two appetizers — kaddo (pan-fried then baked baby pumpkin seasoned with sugar and served on yogurt garlic sauce, topped with ground beef sauce) and banjan (pan-fried eggplant seasoned with spices, then baked with fresh tomatoes, served on yogurt garlic mint sauce).

And nan, Afghan bread that came with three complimentary sauces, each tastier than the last.

Which would have been plenty, along with the entrees and we ordered: Qabelee (pallow rice baked with chunks of lamb shanks, raisins and glazed julienne of carrots); and chapendaz, (choice tenderloin of beef marinated, grilled and served on a sauce of grilled tomato, grilled hot peppers, grilled onion and cumin seeds served with lentils, mung beans and spinach rice).

But Hassan treated us to mantwo (a homemade pastry shell filled with onion and beef, served on yogurt and topped with carrots, yellow split-pea and beef sauce) and sabzi (spinach sautéed with onions, garlic, salt and black pepper).

And were totally sated. Not stuffed but comfortable, because the generous portions weren’t heavy.

Scrumptious. Every item.

But not for everyone. Burger or hot dog addicts and those who prefer fried diamondback rattlesnake should stay home.

Prices are moderate. Entrees range from $11.95 to $24.95, appetizers cost $5.95 or $6.95, soup is $5.50 and salads $4.95, and side dishes run $5.95.

One of the best things about Helmand Palace is its pleasant ambience and quietude — especially important because of my wife’s hearing disability.

Parking in the Russian Hill neighborhood can be dicey, I admit.

It would probably be best if you have a chopper and can land in some nearby helipad I know nothing about.

But it’s worth it even if you must circle the block a few times to find something on the street or even park in a more car-friendly neighborhood and phone for a Uber driver.

Despite that inconvenience, we plan to go again.

And I unhesitatingly recommend, as the classic 1971 Alka Seltzer commercial used to scream at me, that you “try it — you’ll like it.”

Contact Woody Weingarten at or check out his blog at

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