It’s been nearly a decade since Silk Road cooking first appeared in Queens, at places like Registan—whose name hilariously recast Rego Park as a Central Asian republic—and Uzbekistan Tandoori Bread. Now known as Uzbekistan Community Center, the latter boasted an oven made from mud and horsehair imported from Bukhara, out of which sprang the wonderful turban-shaped loaves called lepeshka. Other Central Asian eateries followed, places where succulent cuts of lamb were grilled over lump charcoal and noodles were hand-pulled, minutes before being thrown into bowls of rich beef soup. Marco Polo never had it so good.
In the ensuing years, we were able to fill in our culinary dance card with other eateries from Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, in addition to a slew of new Uzbeki spots, each adding a dish or two to the collective menu. Last to arrive was Uyghur cooking from China’s Xinjiang province, which borders on Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, and, yes, Kazakhstan. The Uyghurs (pronounced “wee-gurrs”) are a Turkic peoples whose capital is the desert trading post of Kashgar. When spelled “Kashkar,” it’s also the name of the city’s first Uyghur restaurant, which opened three years ago in Brighton Beach.
Now we have another: Arzu. It means “hope” in Farsi, one of the Persian-derived languages spoken in the region. In contrast to Kashkar, Arzu observes kosher dietary laws, mounting a menu that emphasizes kebabs and salads over rice-based dishes. As at other Silk Road establishments, lamb rib is sultan of the kebabs ($3.25 apiece), five bony chunks of lamb threaded on a stainless steel skewer, elegantly plated with sliced onions. The boneless lamb kebabs are not nearly as good, and the same rule applies to poultry: The boneless chicken is dull and listless, while the “bone-in” chicken develops a crisp skin and a real personality. Always go for the bone!
With Borat-like fluency, sweetbreads ($3.75) are referred to as “selected neck cut of beef grilled.” Technically, it’s thymus . The same stiltedness extends to the well-lit dining room, which is outfitted with tall straight-backed chairs, which force you to sit up at attention like Cossack cavalrymen. It’s worth the discomfort, because several of the non-kebab choices are as toothsome as the lamb rib. A relative of Indian samosa, samsa ($1.50) is a flaky pillow-shaped pastry strewn with black sesame seeds and bulging with a lamb and onion mixture. Two would make a fine meal, and it prompts the question: Where does Arzu get its amazing lamb?
Then there are the Uyghur-style manti, massive dough purses that seem hand-assembled just prior to steaming. Sometimes they don’t quite make it to the table without falling apart. No matter, these obese wontons are superb, especially the version filled with cubed orange squash ($1.25), which retains its texture without turning into puree. Avoid the tomato sauce that comes alongside—it’s straight out of the can. The beef soup laced with homemade noodles (“lagman,” $4) is astonishingly good, the thick broth jumbled with vegetables, while the shorpo—the fast-breaking soup of Ramadan—is here rendered light and palatable, each bowl graveled with chick peas and featuring a hunk of odiferous lamb rib.
Meanwhile, we’re still waiting for the city’s first Kazakhstani restaurant. Apparently, Borat was right about one thing: The nomadic Kazakhs are inordinately fond of horsemeat, just like the French. I can’t wait.