Baltimore functions like any other city: it has its odd-smelling public transportation. It has its eclectic mix of people – there’s the multi-millionaire living in the penthouse suite right above the self-proclaimed messiah standing on the street corner pawning propaganda. Of course, like any other city, in between the rows of antiqued houses, sky-high buildings, and dilapidated corner shops, Baltimore has its little pocket of quaint cobble stone streets, cherry blossom trees, and gothic architecture. For just a moment, the Mount Vernon neighborhood, located a few blocks north of downtown Baltimore and a few blocks south of the city’s numerous college campuses, removes you from the highs and lows of city living. For just a moment, the Mount Vernon neighborhood takes you away from the corporations, away from the troubled streets, away from the crabs and Natty Bo’s, and places you smack-dab in the middle of a cultural amalgamation of intellect and globalization.
Mount Vernon is the perfect balance between aesthetic appeal and necessary city grit. The extravagant architecture lining the streets is equalized by the dingy liquor stores renting space on the underground levels. The area is filled with small shops, mostly to get your music instrument tuned correctly – the Johns Hopkins Peabody Institute is close by. Even more prevalent than the instrumental pit stops are the eclectic mix of restaurants ready to suit every worldly taste bud your mouth is craving. My bank account and protruding stomach can confirm that I am undoubtedly a foodie. Mount Vernon has become a cultural hub, not only for arts and music, but also for global food endeavors. With a wide variety of choices from Thai, to Vietnamese, to classic American, the area is booming with sensory numbing options.
The first time I visited The Helmand, a Mount Vernon Afghani restaurant, was almost four years ago. My parents were in town, and I was on the hunt to find a good place to eat, not only just to impress my family, but also to fill my nutritional needs with a meal outside of my college campus’ cafeteria. As we drove through Mount Vernon, my stubborn dad pulled into a parking lot, simply because he was sick of driving. Low and behold, an unsuspecting restaurant with a green awning was next door, thus leading us to the best Afghani food in Baltimore to this day.
The Helmand is a staple in the Mount Vernon community, celebrating 25 years of business. The restaurant is owned by Qayum Karzai, brother of former Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Opened in 1989, The Helmand has since become of a favorite in the neighborhood. While it is named after the owner’s first-born son, it holds a two-fold meaning in also symbolizing the Helmand River that runs through Afghanistan, providing sustenance to
many. Karzai owns three other restaurants in Baltimore: B in Bolton Hill and Tapas Teatro and Pen and Quill, both in Charles North. As The Helmand enters its mid-twenties, the restaurant is not having any harrowing life-altering crises like most mid-twenty year olds. Rather, the restaurant is sticking to what it knows: simple food and good service.
“The food isn’t complicated, it’s just made well,” said Aasif, a waiter at the restaurant for the past year or so.
It was a Tuesday evening when I re-visited The Helmand in Mount Vernon. Despite it being a weekday, the space was filled with noisy diners clanking wine glasses, chatting merrily, and eating joyously. The crowd ranged from dates to families to grungy college students like myself, all enjoying the low-lit ambiance and rich food. The dining room is split in two: a small entry-way row of tables under dim lighting near the bar, and a larger dining room that opens up to large windows and walls decorated with Afghani garbs and ornamental rugs. Each table is covered in a pristine white cloth, sparkling glasses, glimmering white plates, and a small votive candle.
Opening the menu at The Helmand can be overwhelming; none of it is in “English” in the traditional sense, but rather, it is in English translations of Afghani dishes. As a foodie, this confirms one thing: the food is authentic. All of the options, whether meat or vegetarian, are simple. They are things like chicken skewers and eggplant stews that make you believe it is easy to cook, when in reality, your attempts of recreating these dishes at home fail miserably.
On my Tuesday night visiting the surprisingly crowded restaurant, I skimmed the menu, hoping that something would jump out at me. Unfortunately, everything did. Luckily, my dinner date was just as adventurous as I, willing to partake in an adventurous journey through both the familiar and unfamiliar. As an appetizer, we ordered Banjan Laghatak, an eggplant stew, topped in sprinklings of a creamy yogurt. Served on a small plate, the first step into the Muslim dining world doesn’t seem large enough for our hungry eyes. The first bite of Banjan Laghatak is undoubtedly a tease; the superior taste not only jumpstarts your taste buds, but also makes you crave an exploration of every spice, taste, and food The Helmand has to offer. The dish had a surprising kick to it, one that could only be washed down with a few heaping servings of fluffy traditional Afghani naan bread and, of course, a cooling glass of wine.
Entrees took two different ends of the spectrum for my dinner date and myself: one chicken kabob, a dish undeniably familiar to us and the very dish I ordered four years earlier when I first visited The Helmand, and one Murgh Challow, a dish undeniably foreign to us. Both came served with a pillow of rice, acting as a bed beneath heaping portions of chicken, cooked in different ways. The chicken kabob came grilled, charred with perfect taste, maintaining all its flavor. Served with grilled vegetables atop the rice, the chicken kabob was juicy, light, and satisfying. Murgh Challow took a heartier turn, serving the chicken in a bowl of a warm tomato-based sauce, covering the meat in a savory glaze of rich flavors. As I shamelessly picked at my dinner date’s food, I was overwhelmed with flavors of spices embodying the saucy mixture that trickled down my body and warmed my stomach on the cool Spring day.
I would not be able to recall for you the number of times I have frequented The Helmand. Depending on the day, I can walk in and have the waiters embarrassingly recognize me for my frequent visits, while another day I can remain completely anonymous, blending seamlessly into the bustling groups of diners enjoying their meals. My dinner dates are almost guaranteed to be annoyed with me, as I am, at least most of the time, that person who chats with my fellow Helmand-loving mates savagely eating their dinners around me. On this brightly lit Tuesday evening, I eavesdropped on the group of men next to me, who were passionately speaking Pashto, the native language of Afghanistan. In an intrusive swoop, I mumbled the few words of Pashto I know.
“Salaam, ta sanga yee?,” hello, how are you, my voice shakily stated. I realized immediately after that it was a mistake to start a conversation like this, seeing as I know literally no other words in Pashto.
After a transition back to English, the three men, all brothers, kindly halted their personal dinner to chat with a nosy college student inquiring about where they’re from, what they do in Mount Vernon, and of course, do they like the food. Pleasantries go by and the men’s lives are become clearer and clearer to me – they work in different careers, some are business owners, others are law associates. They were born in Afghanistan but their parents moved to Baltimore County when they were young. They did not mind that I butchered a Pashto greeting, in fact, they seemed to appreciate it. And they all live about twenty minutes away, but frequently come up to Mount Vernon, specifically for The Helmand’s authentic food.
While the food is phenomenal and the wine comes both by the glass and by the bottle, The Helmand is a staple of the Mount Vernon community. It embodies the sense of culture and collaboration that nuzzles into the everyday life of a Mount Vernon-ite. The restaurant has been in business 25 years now, and yet, the menu, service, and ambiance have barely changed over the course of its existence. Why, we wonder? Don’t fix what ain’t broken. The three men who were kind enough to chat with me confirmed what I already knew about The Helmand, and Mount Vernon as a whole. It’s eclectic, yes; it’s filled with interesting people, yes; it has its charms and its quirks; absolutely. Yet, even more so, the three men reminded me of a phone call I had with The Helmand’s manager, Nadeem, who has been working at The Helmand for a number of years, and maintains a close relationship with business-owner Qayum Karzai.
“Why Baltimore, why Mount Vernon, why Afghani food IN Mount Vernon,” I pestered him incessantly.
With a few simple words, Nadeem responded, “Afghani food is meant for sharing, so what better neighborhood to have it in than one that shares culture and community.”