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Albany Park

Albany Park’s Helmand Chicago Offers A Culinary Tour Of Afghanistan’s Regions

Chef and co-owner Wahid Tanha grew up cooking alongside his father in Kabul. His goal is to introduce people to new flavors.

Helmand Chicago chef and co-owner Wahid Tanha at his restaurant on April 25, 2023.
Alex V. Hernandez/Block Club Chicago
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ALBANY PARK — A new family-run restaurant showcases cuisine from across Afghanistan and is named after the country’s largest and oldest province.

Helmand Chicago, 4661 N. Kedzie Ave., hosted its grand opening this month. The building, which is next to the Kedzie Brown Line stop, formerly was home to Noon-O-Kabab, which moved to a different building on the same block. 

The restaurant’s namesake is Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan. It joins Albany Park’s multicultural food scene — but chef and co-owner Wahid Tanha said he is highlighting flavors diners might not have tried before.

Examples include steamed mantu dumplings filled with spiced ground beef, shredded carrots and onions, and aashak dumplings, an Afghan ravioli-style dish filled with scallions and leeks. Both are served with a tomato and lentil sauce and a yogurt mint drizzle.

Another dish is the Afghan-style seekh kabob: a skewer of minced lamb prepared with spices, herbs and the fat from a fat-tailed lamb‘s “dumba,” which makes the meat extra flavorful and tender, Tanha said.

“In Afghanistan, the sheep are raised to have a lot of fat, unlike here. And people love that dish since we’ve opened. I don’t think you can find it in other places in the United States at all,” he said. “Without that fat, it wouldn’t be the same dish.”

Tanha is from Kabul and grew up in the restaurant industry, he said.

Tanha left Afghanistan in 2001 and traveled throughout Europe, working as a restaurant manger in places like the United Kingdom, said Maria Kharot, Helmand’s co-owner and Tanha’s wife.

“He managed Persian, Afghan, Italian, just all different types of restaurants,” Kharot said.

Kharot is the daughter of Afghan immigrants and grew up in Wrigleyville. The pair met when Tanha’s brother married one of Kharot’s cousins, and they married in 2006, she said.

The pair were in a long-distance relationship before Tanha came to Chicago in 2007 because Kharot didn’t want to move to the United Kingdom, she said.

“I just got to know him, and we had the same mentality. And next thing you know, we got married,” she said.

After relocating to Chicago, Tanha considered getting into the city’s restaurant scene but opted to become a professional chauffeur, Kharot said.

Kharot is a managing partner at a real estate group. Tanha’s chauffeur job meant he had a more flexible schedule to help raise their four kids: two daughters and two sons, the couple said.

But after the 2020 dine-in ban and stay at home order went into effect, Tanha had fewer clients to drive around and spent more time at home, Kharot said.

That’s when Tanha rediscovered his love for cooking, which inspired the couple to open a restaurant, Kharot said. 

“The pandemic allowed him to be home, and he started working on his master dishes all over again,” Kharot said. 

Soon after, the couple began looking at potential locations and developing a business plan before on taking over Noon-O-Kabab’s former location, Kharot said. 

“Albany Park is an amazing location. Growing up in the city, I’m familiar with how multicultural it is,” she said. “Right around the corner is the first property my parents lived in when they migrated to the United States. So Albany Park is very near and dear to me. I feel like life brought us back to where I started.” 

Tanha designed a menu showcasing dishes he grew up cooking with his father, like firnee, an cardamom-infused Afghan pudding, he said.

“As a child, when you grow up with your father, I have a lot of memories. When my dad was done making firnee, my brother and I would fight over cleaning the pot with our fingers,” Tanha said.

The menu also features Afghan salata, a salad made with diced tomatoes, onions and cucumbers tossed with lemon juice and mint; chenjeh lamb and joujeh chicken kababs; and a lamb karahi in which the meat is sautéed with vegetables. 

These dishes are prepared with herbs and spices highlighting flavors from Afghanistan’s regions, Tanha said. 

“There’s a lot of things that I’m doing that are different from other chefs that I learned from my dad,” Tanha said. “And I want to do it the right way, because cooking like that reminds me of him.” 

Helmand Chicago is open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.

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