Babani’s claims to be the first Kurdish restaurant in the United States. I say “claims” not because I have any reason to doubt them but because their origin story starts with the wonderful first sentence, “There was, there wasn’t…” This origin story, which is plastered on their website and on their menu (you can read it below) may be—despite some poor proofreading—the most original in the admittedly not-very studied genre of restaurant origin stories: charming despite presenting some rather old-fashioned views of the relationship between men and women; substituting for desultory listings of kitchen antecedents and wealthy backers, a playful tale of immigrant movement and desire that is as touching as it is tall.
A Kurdish restaurant in Minnesota? Why not? There are plenty of us here who never expected to end up in a place like this, so different from the climates—emotional and physical—we grew up in. The story of what it means to be Minnesotan is still being written.
Babani’s hat tips to postmodernism don’t end with the beginning of their origin story. Their sign says Babani’s 2 and it’s true that their current location (on E. Fillmore Avenue, off Wabasha, across the bridge over the Mississippi) is the second. They’ve been around for 20 years in St. Paul but for the first 18 or so they occupied an altogether less attractive space near downtown St. Paul—we passed it for nigh on a decade taking the brats to the Children’s Museum and I was never able to talk the missus into stopping in. They opened this larger, second location sometime in 2016 and its success led to their closing the original and focussing entirely on this location. As such Babani’s 2 is now also Babani’s The Only. They’re open for lunch and dinner on weekdays, for dinner only on Saturdays; on Sundays they close.
The restaurant, bright and welcoming, is not small, but our experience this past Saturday would suggest that if you wish to dine there on a Saturday evening you’d best make a reservation. We had—we were a large group—and while we were the first to be seated at about 5 pm (my Americanization is complete) it wasn’t long before every table was taken. I can only hope that it is a similar story every other day of the week. These are warm, hospitable people who run this restaurant and they deserve all the business they get.
The menu is compact. I know just enough about Kurdish cuisine to know that I know nothing so please do not look here for verification of the antecedents of the dishes. I suspect that Kurdish cuisine is in the broader spectrum of Persian cuisine, broadly construed—a tradition whose reach and influence extends well into northern India. Certainly a lot of what we ate scratched Indian food itches for me—some directly, some indirectly. In the former category were the kababs and jaajic (raita, basically) ; in the latter category was the cardamom-heavy baklava which called the flavour of types of barfi to mind while being nothing structurally like barfi. Their biryani, on the other hand, only has the Persian name in common with the north Indian variant. Other dishes with their emphasis on lemon (also what, as a friend noted, separated their chicken kabab from north Indian versions) and sourness were from entirely different constellations of flavours.
For everything we ate, and a sense of what we thought of them, launch the slideshow below. Scroll down for thoughts on value etc.
All of this plus a bunch of coffees and teas and glasses of wine and soft drinks plus tax and tip came to about $245 (keep in mind that we got 2-3 orders of some things). More expensive than our recent south-east Asian outings on University avenue but a good deal for what it is. The service, as I noted above, is warm and welcoming. And speaking of wine, I should note that since they now have a liquor license they are no longer byob.
If I lived in St. Paul I’d stop in often. As it is, even though we’ve already eaten most of their menu, I’ll be back soon. If you live within reach and haven’t gone yet. you really should. And if you’re visiting Minnesota and looking for an “only in Minnesota” culinary experience, what better than a Kurdish restaurant?
Awesome you got to this place; its always been kind of below the radar; we’ve been going since it was on the other side of the river. Their new digs are much nicer really. I came up with a copycat recipe for their lentil soup some years ago, if you’re interested, I hope you don’t mind if I pop it in here:
Niskena Soup (red lentil soup) (serves 4)
2-3 T olive oil
1 1/2 cups red split lentils, rinsed (masoor dal is the label if you go to an indian market.. Most well stocked commonor’s markets will have it too.)
1 med. yellow onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 1/2 t fresh ground cumin
1 1/2 t turmeric
1/2 t cayenne, or to taste
2 t salt, or more to taste
lemon juice to finish
You saute the onion in a medium stockpan in the olive oil, till brown on the edges, about 7 minutes, then add the garlic and the 3 spices to bloom them, about 1 minute.
Then add the rinsed lentils, stir for a minute, and add 4 cups water. Simmer about 20-30 minutes. Add the salt about halfway through.Then turn off heat and blenderize or use a stick blender which is what we do, until smooth.
Check the salt and pepper level, and add about a 1 t lemon juice per portion just before serving. if you have it the next day you’ll need to thin it out with some water.
I should have noted that the niskena lentil soup also checked Indian dal boxes in my head.
I enjoyed this article on the restaurant in the Washington Post in 2002.