It might be that Cambridge isnít big enough for two Afghan restaurants. Buzkashi, which opened on a corner of Mass Ave just beyond Porter Square about a year and a half ago, was a smaller, spicier, and less expensive alternative to the (rightly) famed Helmand over by the CambridgeSide Galleria. Named after the national sport of Afghanistan ó an equestrian rugby in which the ball is a headless goat carcass ó Buzkashi was recently renamed Ali Baba Tandoor. The ownership is the same, but now some of the dishes have a decidedly Indian lilt to them. Perhaps people found the former plates a little too rough-and-tumble, a little too foreign. The name, and some of the dishes, have been tamed.
The mourgh challow ($12), for example, is extremely tender chicken-breast chunks, sautéed with spices and yellow split peas in a yogurt, cilantro, and curry sauce. Itís extremely flavorful, and the flavors are Indian. The challow rice itís served with, as noted on the menu, is boiled, drained of water, seasoned with cumin seeds, and baked. The pallow rice, which comes with most of the meat dishes, is seasoned with cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin seeds, and black pepper before itís baked. The vegetarian special ($12), a remnant of the restaurantís Buzkashi days, includes a chunk of sweet and soft baked pumpkin, a slice of pan-fried eggplant in a bitter yogurt sauce, sautéed spinach, and okra sautéed in fresh tomatoes. The okra was the mealís highlight for its flavor and almost meaty texture; it was a shame there wasnít more of it.
Ali Baba Tandoor is trying to lure more diners with all sorts of specials and deals. If you go soon, you might get served complimentary Afghan green tea (otherwise $2), a mango lassi (a perfect dessert and normally $4), a small saucer of vegetarian soup ($3), a light salad ($2) of chickpeas and potatoes over greens, and baskets full of warm, flat, cushiony Afghan bread. A tiny saddle, which would just about fit a two-year-old riding a golden retriever, hangs by the door, a reference to the national sport. Ali Baba Tandoor, thankfully, is a more relaxed way to experience Afghan culture.
Ali Baba Tandoor, 2088 Mass Ave, in Cambridge, is open Sunday through Thursday, from 5 to 10 pm, and Friday and Saturday, until 11 pm. Call 617.492.9538 or visit www.alibabatandoor.com.