Molded by a dizzying array of cultures and traditions, Bukharian cuisine is one of the world’s great unknown treasures – and now you can try it at this new North Phoenix kosher mom-and-pop.
If you’re an open-minded gourmet with a ferocious appetite, have I got a place for you. It’s called Cafe Chenar, and it’s my current idée fixe, a surprisingly pretty strip mall restaurant in North Phoenix specializing in the cuisine of the Bukharian Jews, who perfected the art of fusion cuisine in Central Asia long before that term even existed.
Isolated from other Jewish communities, the Bukharians lived in the Emirate of Bukhara (1785-1920) in what is now modern-day Uzbekistan. The fabled overland trade route known as the Silk Road once cut through the region, intermingling Middle Eastern, Indian, Russian, Korean and Chinese traditions into one scrumptiously exotic mélange reflected in the cooking.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, thousands of Bukharian Jews immigrated to the U.S., many of them settling in and around Queens, New York. Chef Mazal Uvaydova, who co-owns Cafe Chenar with her son, Natan, was one of them. She relocated to Arizona from New York 20 years ago, working here as a seamstress until her son (who also owns Kitchen 18 in Scottsdale and Cucina LaBella pizzeria in Phoenix, both glatt kosher like Chenar) coaxed her into helping him create a restaurant honoring their heritage. When she’s not in the kitchen, she can usually be found in the dining room, chatting with customers and making recommendations for the neophytes – although many customers are clearly familiar with the cuisine.
My own advice? Jump right in. I haven’t met a dish I didn’t like. Everything from the hot appetizer section is dough-based and ridiculously good. Baked with a peephole so you can see and smell its fragrant filling of ground beef and chopped onion, belyash is a traditional dish sold at Russian street stands and it’s wonderful – the bread dough extraordinarily light, elastic and ever so faintly sweet. Puffy, oval-shaped piroshky are faintly greasy to the touch and come stuffed with dreamy mashed potato – understated and so very satisfying. I love them with all my heart. Same goes for the black-sesame-seed-flecked samsa. Much like its Indian cousin, the samosa, it arrives in a crispy, golden-brown swirl of sturdy pastry, which enfolds a saltier, more garlicky meat and onion filling than the other appetizers. Still, my favorite from this group is chuchvara – small, folded Uzbek dumplings that resemble tortellini. Stuffed with beef and sweet, deep-brown slivers of caramelized onion, they’re rich and almost slippery, the edges faintly browned from pan-frying. They can also be ordered crispy – not quite as swoon-worthy, but damned good just the same. All of these doughy delights are served with a robust tomato-based sauce, kicked up with red chile.
When Stalin resettled thousands of ethnic Koreans to Central Asia in the 1930s, they left their mark on Bukhara as well, revealed in menu offerings such as kimchi salad and markovcha, a tangle of spicy, garlicky carrot strings, strewn with green onion and cilantro. Another salad, the Chenar, combines daikon sticks with short strips of beef tongue, the whole crunchy, meaty heap scattered with crispy bits of fried onion. It’s delicious and distinctly Russian, thanks to the mayo that binds it and the dill that gives it an anise-like zing. (The Koreans brought the daikon to the party.) Meanwhile, bohon, a typical Uzbek salad of roasted eggplant, is basically a chunkier, wetter and far more garlicky version of baba ghanoush.
Fatir, a flat, layered, sesame-seed-studded bread (dense but light and elastic), is perfect for dipping. Uzbek lepyoshka, an airier round bread that slopes to the center, its texture more closely resembling a baguette, is excellent too, so aromatic my car smells of it for hours.
Either makes a good accompaniment to lagman, a deep Uzbek soup brimming with beef, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, onions and thin, springy noodles. Star anise lends fragrance and a certain exoticism to the soup, and I’ll be here to get it often. On the lighter side, unleavened pelmenim dumplings in a clear broth brings wonton soup to mind except that the flavors and traditional garnish of green onion and cilantro are Uzbek all the way.
Naturally, shish kebab makes an appearance on the Chenar menu. Served on metal skewers with a flurry of chopped green onions, slivered red onions and cilantro, they’re all perfectly cooked, bearing the telltale char of the grill. My pal and I sample agreeably chewy lamb lollipops, ribeye, veal liver and sweetbreads, the last my favorite for its light, spongy texture and discernible whiff of smoke. Uzbek plov, fragrant with cumin, is the best pilaf I can remember – a faintly oily formed mound of golden rice and vegetables, topped with chunks of fork-tender beef, enough for two at a bargain price. The Chenar menu also has manti, the tender Asian dumplings popularized locally at FnB. Artfully sealed in a pretty pattern, these versions are larger and less delicate than the small Turkish manti at FnB, but the dough and meat filling are both so satisfying I love them anyway.
Dessert includes Uzbek chak chak (honeyed mounds of fried dough sticks, studded with walnuts and raisins) and an utterly dreamy Napoleon, composed of whisper-thin puff pastry and whipped cream (not the usual custard cream and top of hard white icing). It’s heavenly and typically Russian if you think about the 19th-century Russian nobility and their love affair with all things French.
I know I’m a sucker for dough, but proclivities aside, I’m still confident in sending you off for a mind-blowing meal at Cafe Chenar, a delicious reminder that we are, indeed, one world.
Contact: 1601 E. Bell Rd., Phoenix, 602-354-4505.
Hours: Su-Th 11 a.m.-9 p.m., F 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Closed Saturday.
Highlights: Piroshky ($3); belyash ($3); chuchvara ($11); lagman ($10); sweetbreads kebab ($8); plov ($12); Napoleon ($7).