Lahore Karahi

A Note:  I know it’s been a long time.  We can talk about it later.  I am planning on writing some more bits about restaurants for you, but for now I found this blog post I wrote last year that for some reason was never published…I think I was arguing with my editor (Steve) over some wording in the first paragraph.  Anyway, enjoy! 

-Mel

I hate waiting to eat, which is why it took me so long to make it to Lahore Karahi. This place is lousy with Academy of Art junior hipsters; they pack the joint, spilling out into the sidewalk in a smoky cluster as they wait to get in.  This night we lingered in the tiny vestibule up front for just a short while before we were seated.  The unavoidable wait here can be attributed to a combination of it’s celebrated status

and it’s tiny cramped dining space.

We had the good fortune of getting a table in a remote corner of the room where we weren’t bumping anyone’s chair, and vice versa.  We were seated next to a mail slot, in case we happened to receive any correspondence during our meal.

Everything I read and heard about Lahore Karahi before my visit said that one MUST order the tandoori fish.  So we did, along with another of the “Tandoori Delicacies” (as they’re classified on the menu); the lamb boti.  They were served together on a hot iron platter with a scattering of bright green lettuce and sliced onions.  Both meaty morsels in our improvised surf and turf were succulent and subtly spiced.  The crunchy lettuce and onions provided a nice contrast in texture, temperature and flavor.  It was pretty well everything I’d hoped for.

We also ordered our favorite compromise veggie dish, saag paneer.  This saag paneer was lovely; it was creamy without having a prominent dairy flavor, the grassiness of the spinach was upfront.  Firm chunks of slightly salty paneer hit the “just right” texture between crumbly and silky.  And of course, the best part of blogging about saag paneer is the always appetizing photo I get to post of it.

Yum.  If anyone knows how to photograph saag paneer in a way that makes it look palatable, let me know please.

To go alongside our main attractions we had two types of naan; onion and Afghani.  They were both massive sheets of bread.  The onion was very good, much better than our last attempt at it.  The Afghani we ordered as a lark, and it was good, but a bit much.  It’s described as naan stuffed with cheese, raisins and cherries, and what you get is a naan stuffed with a very bland cheese and the bright red and green candied fruits you see in fruitcakes and the like.  It is intensely sweet.  I couldn’t come close to finishing my half of this one.  It would be more appropriate to split between, say, six or so people instead of two.

Surprisingly, Lahore Karahi lived up to my expectations.  I’ve been hearing about how great it is for years, first from a couple on the bus who mistook me for a tourist as I was wondering with my companion where to have lunch.  They told me I HAD to go to Lahore Karahi, it was the best restaurant in the city.  Since then I’ve heard it referred to as one of the best places for Pakistani food more than a few times.  So of course I was expecting it to stink.  I was proven wrong by the friendly people running this surprisingly cozy restaurant.  I will definitely be back…as soon as I figure out when their off time is…

Lahore Karahi

612 O’Farrell

http://www.lahorekarahisanfrancisco.com/

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Shalimar

Shalimar is famous for serving what many consider the best Pakistani/Indian food in the city while being located in a marginal neighborhood and being the diviest of dives.   I mean, I’m pretty sure it’s famous.  I’d heard of it before I moved here, but that could be just because my dad was obsessed with the Zagat’s Guides.  Regardless, Shalimar is extremely popular.  The Jones Street location is the OG; it preceded the slightly nicer location on Polk and was, you could say, the founder of what is now known to some as the Tandoorloin, having opened about 15 years ago.  I’ve been to both Shalimar locations in SF several times, with experiences that range from good to fair, but this trip would fall just on the inside of the unpleasant category. 

It wasn’t terribly busy when we got there, there weren’t many open tables, but we were able to sit without a wait.  Steve grabbed a couple menus, which are one of the more charming things about Shalimar; they’re laid out sort of like a newspaper on large sheets of newsprint paper.

And for some reason they call beverages “mind blowers.”

So we picked three dishes, Steve went to order and when he came back the four top next to the two top we were sitting at opened up.  I said let’s move over there, because when you’re eating family style, a small table can be a real annoyance.  So we switched tables and Steve started freaking out.  “I told the guy we were sitting at that other table.  I think he’s going to give our food to someone else.”  I told him to relax, but he was watching the food running dude like a hawk until our first dish came out. 

Of course it was wrong.  This was chicken boti, Steve had ordered lamb boti.  We flagged down the food runner and gave him the sitch, and he said there was no lamb boti.  So chicken boti it was, and we were going to have to like it.  Which we did, actually, it was the best thing we ate that night.  Very juicy chicken, with a nice smoky flavor.  Though, it must be noted, it was the skimpiest portion I’ve received at an Indian restaurant in, well, probably forever.  Not that we left hungry, we certainly ordered enough dishes to make sure that wouldn’t happen, and not that I am against small portions, provided the price correlates, which in this instance I don’t think it did.  Sorry for the run on sentence!  The point is, normal prices, less food than normal.  Our next dish was something we had ordered

Mattar Paneer, cheese with peas.  It was tasty enough, but probably should have been called “oily sauce with 4 chunks of cheese and a smattering of peas.”  Again, this was a pretty chintzy serving.   The worst was when this arrived at our table

and we didn’t know what it was.  Steve had ordered a chicken curry, and we were pretty sure this wasn’t chicken, the meat was pretty dark.  I figured it was lamb, because of the appearance of the bones, but it didn’t have a distinct lamb flavor.  Steve supposed it was beef, but I guess we’ll never know.  At this point we didn’t bother to flag the dude down again, we’d already had to grab him a second time to ask for the raita we’d ordered, so we just said “fuck it,” and ate the whatever it was.  It tasted ok.

We also ordered a regular naan for Steve and an onion naan for me.  I have been onion obsessed lately, but this was a bad call.  The naan was undercooked and extremely floury.  The regular naan was better, but still nothing to write home about. 

We didn’t have any trouble wolfing every morsel down though.

All in all, a pretty disappointing trip to Shalimar.  Beyond the food, there was also an awkward situation with a woman who came in with a rather large group of women and children.  I don’t know exactly what went down, but shortly after they came in she was yelling at a man to get the hell out, then she chased him out the door and didn’t come back for a good long while.  I was relieved when she came back because I was a little worried the guy was going to attack her or something, but I also kind of wish she hadn’t come back because she was acting very strangely.  Not that that will happen if you decide to eat there.  The chances are better that you will get some mediocre food though.

Shalimar

532 Jones St

http://www.shalimarsf.com

Chutney

Sigh.  I have just not been inspired to write about Chutney.  I don’t know what it is. 

The food was fine.  Some of the food was pretty good.  It just didn’t infatuate me, y’know?  This is my 40th restaurant.  Maybe I’m getting a little burnt out. 

Chutney was like a nicer, cleaner Naan and Curry, with a similar menu and similar price point.  It was even busier than Naan and Curry though, when we were there there was a crazy line up.  I didn’t know that this place was so popular.  I think I was excited by the specials board

But then it turned out they were out of the goat curry.  So instead we ordered lamb with cauliflower.

Which was pretty good I guess.

I’m pretty sure it’s lamb vindaloo.  I don’t know.  The only thing that really sticks out in my mind is this

They call it Tandoori Chicken salad.  It’s a good amount of juicy tandoori chicken on top of some crisp lettuce, onions and tomatoes in tangy yogurt dressing.  This is $4.99 and they throw in an entire garlic naan.  It’s crazy!  I really appreciated this salad.

The Chutney experience was a weird one.  I remember enjoying my meal well enough at the time, though I didn’t especially enjoy the ambience.  The tables were awfully close together and I could overhear several conversations.  The long line to order crept outside and made for an annoying door open/door closed dance, which made the dining room alternately too cold, or apparently too smoky for some people.   I’m not sure why exactly Chutney was so so busy.  Since it’s not the closest Indian food to my house, I don’t see myself going there again, as nothing except the salad stood out to me especially as something I couldn’t get at an equal quality elsewhere.  There seemed to be a good number of family groups, tables with several generations gathered together, which makes me think perhaps Chutney is mentioned in some guidebook or that hotels recommend it to guests since it is, I imagine, the cheapest, cleanest and least threatening Indian restaurant in the area.   If this is your favorite fast food Indian, I can’t fault  you for that.  I really don’t want it to sound like I’m bad mouthing this place, because I’m not.  It’s just not my favorite. 

Chutney

511 Jones St

http://www.chutneysf.com/

Punjab Kabab House

Before I went to Punjab Kabab House I was expecting something pretty hole-in-the-wall-ey.  Something like Pakwan or Lahore Karahi.  So I was pretty surprised when I walked in to a large dining room with fancy chairs and pretty decorations.

I was also surprised after I’d eaten there to discover that this restaurant was featured on something called 7×7’s 2010 Big Eat SF list.  I felt kind of embarrassed that here was this restaurant right in my neighborhood that I’d never even heard of and it had what one magazine deemed to be one of the 100 essential dishes in San Francisco.  It’s the chicken curry lunch special, by the way, if you want to participate in the Big Eat SF scavenger hunt.

Let’s go back to the past, back when all I knew about Punjab Kabab House was that it was a little nerve-wracking to lock my bike up outside of it.  Yeah, I admit it, this corner is a little sketch.  I don’t know if it’s always as boisterous around there as it was that night, or if the street folk were especially rowdy because it was Super Bowl sunday.  PKH has a tv mounted inside by the door that you can see from outside.  I was sitting with my back to the window and kept getting freaked out because this guy

was banging on the window intermittently, I guess when something he liked or didn’t like happened in the game.  There were also a group of two men and a lady who would pop their heads (and sometimes the rest of their bodies) in to ask what the score was.  So, some added excitement to our meal.

When I got to PKH Steve was already there and had ordered this

It’s Super Beer y’all!  I’d never seen or heard of this beer before (it was just a night of full of discoveries for me!), but I liked it, it was pretty malty so it made a good foil for the spicy stuff to come.

I pretty much left the ordering up to Steve except that I requested rice and raita.  The raita move was fortuitous, I was just in the mood for it but I was very glad to have it later.  In fact, I ended up getting another order halfway through.  I’m a pretty big wimp when it comes to spicy stuff, but I know the difference between really spicy and kinda spicy.  The food at PKH wasn’t super crazy spicy, but it was definitely hotter than the food at the average Indian place in San Francisco.  So just what did we eat, besides yogurt? 

We ate this lamb kabab, which tasted as gorgeous as it looks.  It was crunchy on the outside with lovely charred bits of intense flavor and was moist on the inside, heavily spiced and yogurt-y sour throughout.  It seemed like instead of just being marinated, the lamb had been covered with some sort of yogurt and spice paste before grilling, which created a crust of yumminess.

This is where things got really hot.  Not the rice, that was just normal, delightful rice.  I’m talking about the chicken kalahari.  Kalahari is quickly becoming one of my favorite dishes.  With big slices of peppers, onions and tomatoes, it could be the fixings for a super delish pizza.  Yum.  The vegetables all have some bite left to them after they’ve been cooked up with some (in this case pretty pungent) curry and chicken cubes.  This was complemented perfectly by the roti

The roti I’m used to has a crisp crust and is light with big pockets of air and has been brushed with a little bit of ghee.  This roti was dense, chewy and sweet.  No ghee.  It was also docked like a pizza dough, which I believe is done to prevent those big bubbles you usually see on naan.  Similar to a pita, but denser.  Good stuff. 

And of course the raita

Good stuff, creamy and cooling.

Then, as if the evening hadn’t been exciting enough, what with the never before tasted beer and kabab and roti, and the homeless peeps and the window hitting, we saw a cat!

We watched this cute little guy walk around the ledges and fire escapes of the building across the street, climb into one window and emerge from another and then enter yet another.  Seeing a cat in the “wild” in San Francisco is thrilling and terrifying, especially when you’re a cat owner.  The thought of my cats getting outside is the stuff of nightmares, for me and for the cats I’m sure.  This little guy seemed pretty chill though.

There are tons of Indian and Pakistani places within a few blocks of Punjab Kabab house, a few I’ve been to and several I haven’t visited yet, but after this dinner PKH shot to the top of my list of places to go when I’m craving some curry.  Did I mention how nice the staff was?  They won’t be all on top of you, but when you need something just go up to the counter and they will be soooo sweet helping you out with whatever. 

Punjab Kabab House

101 Eddy St

Their Yelp Page

Pakwan

Pakwan was not the first choice for dinner this particular night.  Lahore Karahi, across the street, was too packed with Academy of Art University students for Steve and I to get a table, so we wandered over to Pakwan. 

Pakwan is a typical San Francisco sort of fast food Indian place; order at the counter, pick up your own plates and utensils, grab a carafe of water from the fridge, pay on your way out.  I think I somehow ended up doing the ordering, which is probably why we ended up with so so much food.  I like to try to get a kind of balanced meal, and I also like naan AND rice so I usually end up getting pretty out of control if I’m ordering for less than three people.

These three dishes

plus this massive pile of rice

and a naan each

it’s just too much.  Especially when your dinner date is rice-phobic (too many carbs).  I ended up eating pretty much that entire plate of rice.  Plus the naan, plus my share of the main dishes.  When we left I felt like I had a rock in my stomach.  Ugh. 

But let’s talk about the food a little bit.  I ordered the things on the menu that I hadn’t encountered before, like mirch salan

roasted peppers in a ground nut curry sauce.  It was pretty delicious, the peppers were mild and the whole thing was infused with a roasty toasty pepper flavor.  It looks oily in that photo, but it was more creamy than anything else, it didn’t leave a greasy feeling in my mouth. 

I had also never had or heard of chicken makhanwala, so I had to order that

also pretty tasty, it was like a less creamy, more tomato-ey chicken tikka masala. 

I tried to get a good picture of the saag gosht but it was difficult because it was really dark and pretty unattractive looking in person, and it turned up even less appealing in the photos.  Here’s my best effort

Usually saag gosht is a pretty safe bet, but this one was just kind of blah.  The lamb flavor just wasn’t there, and it was sort of bland.  We probably could have done without it, but I love me some lamb and it’s hard to pass up. 

I also ordered a mango lassi, which was pretty good.  It was more mango than yogurt, which is not what I’m used to but I liked that. 

Things got kind of weird about halfway through our dinner there, suddenly the people working there were running in and out of the restaurant, for a while we were the only people in the place; diners, employees or otherwise.  The woman who we had ordered from ended up leaving and was replaced at the counter by a young guy, who, as I got up to pay, said “Goodbye, thank you very much.”  I explained to him that I hadn’t paid yet and he said, “Oh, you could have just left.”  Too bad, I missed my chance to dine and dash! 

Pakwan

501 O’Farrell

www.pakwanrestaurant.com