First Look: Silk Road Café

Honolulu gets a taste of Uzbekistan.


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Silk Road meat plate

The osh.
Photos: Lavonne Leong

 

The buzz started even before Silk Road Café opened its doors last week in a little arcade on Merchant Street: “Awesome, we’re getting an Uzbek restaurant!” “Where’s Uzbekistan?” “I dunno.” “What’s Uzbek food like?” “I dunno, but I’m looking forward to eating it.”

 

So, since food is the sum of geography and history, here are a few facts about Uzbekistan. Its cities—Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara—lie on the ancient trade route between China and Rome that eventually became the Silk Road. It’s been occupied by everyone from the Persians to the Turks to Alexander the Great. Last to sweep through were the Russians.

 

And everyone left a culinary mark. At Silk Road Café, tender, flavorful Uzbek blinis (thin, Russian-style pancakes stuffed with potato and onion, or beef) rub shoulders with samsas, which look a lot like the triangular, savory filled pastries you might find at an Indian restaurant under the name samosas. Uzbek naan bread, piled high at the register, is a beautiful, fresh-baked round, sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds. Most plates come with a small wedge of naan, but if the ones at the counter are warm, it’s worth grabbing one to share. Or just look at.

 

Naan bread

Uzbek naan bread.

 

Owners Akrombek “Aki” and Mamura Yuldashev and their family immigrated to Hawai‘i from Tashkent in 2014. They guide newbies to osh, a pilaf dish of meat, rice and spices that has variations from Northern Africa to Asia. I like the Uzbek version, served with tender, shredded beef, little chickpeas, sweet carrots and a dry, long-grain rice, garnished with a generous handful of mixed herbs. I detected coriander, parsley, green onion and dill.

 

Another first-timer dish—and our favorite—was the fried lagman, made with rustic, hand-pulled noodles that were fun to eat, with varying widths and a springy, toothsome texture. The lagman, stir-fried with beef, egg and vegetables, had a complex flavor redolent of the Middle East. “Hmm, cinnamon,” said my friend. “You don’t end up with the same flavor you started out with. I approve.”

 

Noodles

Fried lagman.

 

The café was out of lamb shashlik (chunks of meat on a skewer), so I went for the lulya shashlik (traditional ground beef) instead. It arrived over a bed of delicious golden rice, but the shashlik itself tasted less complex than other dishes on the menu. There was plenty I didn’t get to try: several other types of shashlik, soups that include lagman and borscht (Russian beef and beet soup), desserts and sides.

 

I arrived at 12:10, and the end of the line was already at the door. By 12:20, there were a dozen people behind me. But the downtown crowd like to eat at their desks, so there were almost always tables free. Silk Road diners were composed of equal parts downtown professionals and more eccentric older travelers and internationals, who were excited to be there, attempted some Uzbek with the owners, and were jovially disappointed when several things ran out (“Well, what do you have?” “This is just like Russia.” “Never mind. Next time!”).

 

Beef dish

The lulya shashlik.

 

Most dishes, served in Styrofoam takeout containers, come with a peppery green salad, a wedge of Uzbek naan and a side of markov (Russian for carrot) salad: a heap of tender shredded carrots seasoned with coriander, vinegar and some “secret spices” the Yuldashevs (twinklingly) aren’t telling. For dessert, get some hot green tea and a slice of medovik, a many-layered honey cake that’s hard to describe. It’s dry, but it’s moist. It’s sweet, but not too sweet. It’s really good.

 

Unless you want to stand in line and people-watch for a while, arrive early or late. If you arrive late, expect that some items will have run out. The staff (who, right now, seem to consist of the owners’ family) are welcoming and friendly. The café is hung with Central Asian art, making it feel like an oasis from the downtown bustle. And the prices ($8–$11 for a main) are great for the intense amount of labor that goes into things like hand-pulled noodles and multilayered, hand-made cakes.

 

I can’t tell you whether this is good Uzbek food, because I have no basis for comparison; it was my first Uzbek meal. I can tell you it’s good food.

 

Silk Road Café; 212 Merchant St.; 585-8212. Opening hours: Monday through Saturday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.

 

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