Irahat Cafe

Dinner can be an exhausting experience. In DC, Farrell and I rarely ate out at restaurants, so here in Bishkek, our first plan is to cook.

After several nights of some combination of beef, rice, potatoes, onions, and carrots, we were a little weary of going for another round of fighting with our grimy stove-top, only to end up with a meal that was “Meh, this isn’t bad.”

We could have had a bit of variety with something crazy like beans or lentils, wahoo! Of course, we didn’t plan ahead, it’s suddenly 6:30pm and I’m totally staaaarving.

Let’s go out, I say. Less than five minutes later we’re already at a table, sitting in chairs covered in what is probably considered “very nice fabric” by Kyrgyz standards (a gold floral pattern with glittery tinsel woven throughout), stuttering “menyoo angleeskee?” to a waiter, crisply adorned in a velour vest as another waiter drags out a couple amps onto a slightly lop-sided crimson stage.

This is the Irahat Café.

Our waiter looks at the stage, looks at us, and says, “There is music.” He follows up with a sort of raising the roof-type gesture and a few rhythmic syllables to really get the point across.

Oh, we know. We’d already partaken in this fine establishment once before. It was the sweet sounds of a young Kyrgyz devushka singing over a cheesy synth track of Russian (and Hebrew?) hits that first intrigued us the last time we had ventured a whole block from our apartment looking for food.

There are many aspects of Irahat that will probably turn us into regular customers, even after we move to our new apartment (much more than a block away). Firstly, they have an English menu with descriptions of the dishes. This is huge! Gosh, I know we’ve been here for almost a whole month now, but when a restaurant insists on giving the salads cutesy names like “Enchant” and “Delight” (a common practice), I need a list of what exactly they insist will be delighting me if I order it. Until I find the standardized glossary of Kyrgyz salads, descriptions are necessary and much appreciated.

Next wonderful thing, two times out of two the restaurant has been packed with chubby faced Kyrgyz babies. It’s always a plus to be able to coo at adorable babies while simultaneously stuffing my face with fresh-baked lepeshka.

Oh yeah, and the biggest reason we went back and plan on returning as much as possible? The food. Tasty cucumber and tomato salads, where, get this, the tomatoes are actually red. Not picked-while-still-green-and-turned-red-with-chemicals-during-transport red. Red like, Oh so that’s what a tomato tastes like.

And then there’s the simple equation of meat + charcoal + salt = amazing; the sum is definitely greater than its parts. For reasons I can’t exactly understand, Irahat, which is a tall, grand building, employs a rusty metal cart parked on the front curb to cook its kebabs. What emerges from that sad-looking contraption are skewers of hot, juicy chucks of happiness. The mutton is blanketed with chunks of oozy fat to constantly marinate and replenish the flavor. The chicken pieces come attached with crispy pieces of skin that I was more than thrilled to crunch in to. Both were served up with a pile of raw onion slices sprinkled with sumak. While these didn’t get much attention from us while we gnawed on our respective hunks of meat, by the end they had soaked up the warm, oily drippings and were transformed into soft, silky strands that could only be properly enjoyed on top of the remaining pieces of lepeshka.

Yes. Me sopping up mutton fat and raw onions with bread. Welcome to the defining moment of Kirstin’s life in Bishkek. I’ll remember this fondly when I suffer from clogged arteries by age 30.

Finally satisfied, Farrell and I agreed that spending a whole $13.50 was a much better idea than attempting to make something with our scant supplies (and motivation) at home. We sat around for a little while, watching as the last swath of dusty magenta sky finally faded to night, a trio of little girls growing tired of dancing to the music. One of our favorite soap operas was set to start soon and we headed home, calculating how long we should wait until post-kebab-hangover to return.