The name Samarkand evokes an exotic, mysterious city that most of us would have trouble finding on a map, let alone naming its home country. That would be Uzbekistan, a fact that may not get you any closer to pinpointing it on the globe. But you can definitely track down the cuisine of Uzbekistan on Denver’s far eastern frontier, at Samarkand Foods.
Uzbekistan, which was long a part of the former Soviet Union, gained its independence in 1991. At Samarkand, you’ll hear staffers and customers speaking a little Russian, as well as other languages; Uzbekistan is home to multiple ethnic groups. Those influences come through in the food, too, so you’ll discover common ground among Russian and Eastern European cuisines and those from certain parts of China and India.
The restaurant itself is built for celebrations. Large tables line the walls on either side of the dining room, while the center is left open. A disco ball and draped fabrics hang from the ceiling, giving the distinct impression that dancing happens here. (In fact, Samarkand is often booked on Saturdays, and sometimes Sundays, for weddings and other festivities, so calling ahead is a good option if you’re planning a weekend visit.) Along either wall are paintings of veiled women in arched alcoves that act as illustrations for obscure (if you’re not from Uzbekistan) folk tales, hinting at the country’s long Muslim history. There’s also a bar, where you can purchase a bottle of vodka for the table, for example. During the less exuberant lunch hours, guests stick with ceramic pots of tea and glasses of kompot, a bright-red fruit punch.
Since some menu items are not available during lunch, it’s best to go for dinner if you want to experience the full range of Uzbekistan’s diverse cultural influences. Lagman is one of the country’s most celebrated dishes, a noodle soup brought to the country from western China by Uyghur migrants. Some preparations of lagman are almost ramen-like in appearance, with a red slick of chile oil on top and a pile of stewed lamb forming an island in the center, but Samarkand’s version is more rustic and homey.
The reddish broth of the lagman bobs with green beans, carrots, potato, small bites of meat and generous slices of garlic. The soup resembles standard American vegetable-beef soup, but the flavor is based in Asian spices, not European herbs. Black and white pepper are both evident in the flavor profile, but beyond that, the ingredients are as couched in mystery as the city of Samarkand itself. Hidden beneath the surface is a nest of soft, slightly doughy noodles that my server confirmed are made in-house. But I needn’t have asked: The texture and delicate flavor of wheat give these noodles away as handmade. At the bottom of the bowl, a fine grit of ground spices is evidence of the kitchen’s craft.
Dumplings are also an important part of Uzbek cuisine. From the starter menu, you can order small dumplings, similar to Russian pelmeni, in broth, or go for a larger order of manti, a specialty found throughout central Asia. Samarkand’s manti are stuffed with a loose mixture of ground beef and lamb and topped with sauteed onions and sour cream. The wavy, convoluted forms of the dumplings come from the corners being pinched together to create a figure-eight shape on top. An order of four for $8 is a meal for one person but a good starter for a group. If you’re lucky, the restaurant will also have its vegetarian manti, filled with a soft mixture that has the look and flavor of Indian dal.
A glance through the rest of the menu or the daily chalkboard specials (yes, there’s an actual chalkboard on an easel) reveals a few more dishes reminiscent of Indian cuisine. The sambusas here aren’t the crunchy, deep-fried variety found on all-you-can-eat buffets, though, but large, baked triangles with a glossy brown finish and a sprinkling of sesame seeds. The chicken tika is also far from its traditional Indian namesake.
Kebabs form the heart of the dinner menu, including lyulya kebabs, made with ground lamb formed onto steel skewers. Rice-based plov (listed as pilav here), a good example of homestyle Uzbek cooking, comes in a number of styles. When in doubt, ordering anything with lamb, rice or chickpeas is a good bet. And a bowl of borscht will make anyone of Slavic descent feel right at home.
Uzbekistan and Samarkand may conjure images of the Silk Road and the exotic days of spice traders, but after just a few visits, Denver’s only Uzbek restaurant feels comforting and familiar.
Samarkand is located at 1842 South Parker Road and is open from noon to 10 p.m. every day but Monday. Call 303-369-0307 for more details.
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