As a certain strain of monotony continues to overtake much of the New York dining world, Hell’s Kitchen has seen almost precisely the opposite. Over the past two years the neighborhood has gained a new Cuban lunch spot (Sophie’s), a Venezuelan stall (Arepa Factory), a Taiwanese takeout joint (Zai Lai), a stunning Italian bakery (Corner Slice), an ambitious Mexican canteen (Tacuba), a small plates seafood spot (Gloria), and a South American salteña spot (Bolivian Llama Party).
Add all of these to a corner of the city that already has some of the best mid-range Japanese spots, then ask yourself why you’re not hanging out in HK more often. Perhaps you’ve been holding out for a Uyghur spot? Well, we have one of those now too.
Kebab Empire, a counter service halal spot that opened this month, claims to be the “first Uyghur kebab chain” — there’s also a location in Flushing — and that its founder, Kudret Yakup, was the “first Uyghur graduate of Harvard College.”
I cannot independently verify those assertions, but what I can tell you is that Yakup, a financier from Urumqi, Xinjiang — an autonomous province in Western China — has given Manhattan a damn good place to eat.
The Uyghurs, a Turkic people who primarily live in Xinjiang, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and elsewhere, generally serve mutton-y and rice-heavy fare that leans more heavily on Central Asian than Chinese traditions. Kebab Empire, as the name suggests, focuses on kebabs. Ten bucks gets three skewers of chicken or lamb, grilled to order, and served over polo (aka plov, or rice pilaf) and a layer of flatbread. I chose the lamb platter. The food came out in about five minutes, and I found a proper table in about seven; every seat was filled on a recent Wednesday.
My cubes of lamb were juicy and pleasantly chewy, with a intense lacing of cumin. To counteract the all gamey fats and heady spices, the polo rice — sticky and heady with the sweet aroma of carrots — lent a hand, but the most effective antidote was a cold cup of doogh, a sweet-tart yogurt drink laced with tiny shards of ice. Imagine kefir, but gentler and less acidic.
I should point out that the expertise of the grilling isn’t quite on par with, say, Nargis, a more ambitious Uzbek spot in Park Slope (and a proper sit down restaurant), but it’s still a stunning value. It’s also a quicker, more casual alternative to Yakitori Totto around the block, which can often command long waits.
I’m calling the $10 lamb platter at Kebab Empire a BUY.
Buy, Sell, Hold is a column from Eater New York’s chief critic Ryan Sutton where he looks at a single dish or item and decides whether you should you buy it, sell it (or just don’t try it at all), or hold (give it some time before trying).