Multicultural Masala

Have you heard the one about the American food critic and the Pakistani cab driver who walk into a barbecue joint?

Abdul picks up the Styrofoam bowl and begins eating the spicy pink yogurt with a plastic spoon, so I follow his lead. The cold yogurt soup has some minced tomato and cucumber in it, along with an intriguing combination of spices. I detect cumin and black pepper, but there are some others I can't identify. I am just getting into the soup when Abdul throws me a curveball. He puts the soup bowl back down on the table and starts throwing lettuce, tomatoes and onions into the yogurt. The soup has suddenly become the salad dressing. He smiles as he swishes the vegetables around in the yogurt and eats them with his fingers. I do what Abdul does.

Abdul Rasheed happened to be first in line at Hobby Airport when I approached the taxi stand. He stood about five foot four, with black hair and dark eyes. He hadn't shaved lately, and he had a strange red stain on his teeth. I asked him where he was from. He said, "Pakistan." I asked him if he knew of a good Pakistani restaurant in Houston. He said, "Oh, yes!" So I offered to buy him lunch.

I've done a lot of whirlwind culinary tours for travel magazines. Since I'm new to Houston, I thought it might be fun to do the same sort of kamikaze dining here. Abdul was the first willing guide I came across.

Deep in the heart of the Pakistani community: Authenticity can be a scary thing to some.
Deron Neblett
Deep in the heart of the Pakistani community: Authenticity can be a scary thing to some.


11887 Bissonnet

He drove me to a stretch of Bissonnet west of Highway 59. "This is the center of the Pakistani community," he said. We passed several shopping centers with Pakistani businesses before pulling into the parking lot at Ali Baba's B.B.Q. and Grill, a small freestanding restaurant on a "pad" in front of a shopping strip.

I stood there speechless for a minute as I first took in the oddity of the scene. Abdul explained that the location used to be an American breakfast restaurant. The new owners have done very little to change the place, which makes it all the more bizarre. The booths and the Formica counter say Steak 'N Egg Kitchen, but the menu hanging above the grill features brain masala. Instead of bacon and coffee, you smell curry and mutton. Abdul likes the quail here, so I order the batair boti (grilled quail) special -- two for $5.99 (or four for $9.99). We also ask for the barbecue combination plate ($5.99) and an order of karahi gosht (stewed beef, $5.99). The paint on the wall beside the booth where we sit is dappled with sauce stains.

We are the last customers for lunch at around two in the afternoon, and the restaurant has grown quiet while we wait for our orders. Abdul is done with his yogurt, and he heads for the washroom. I am idly clucking my tongue on the roof of my mouth, trying to decipher the cryptic spice mix. Since there is no one else around, I get up and stroll into the kitchen. "What are the spices in the yogurt?" I ask a man in an apron. The cook points to a rack that contains some large plastic jars.

"We grind these together to make our own masala," he says. Two of the jars on the shelf contain black peppercorns and cumin seeds, as I expected. Another contains cloves, and the fourth holds a pod that looks like a miniature Brazil nut. I fish it out of the jar, scrape it with my thumbnail and sniff. It's cardamom. In Indian cooking, these four spices, plus cinnamon, are ground together to make the spice mix called garam masala.

Shortly after Abdul returns, our food arrives, and after a quick assessment, I zero in on the quail. It looks fabulous. The skin is crispy, brown and flecked with spices. The bird is very hot, and I burn my fingers pulling it apart. It is really too hot to eat, but I tear off a big rosy piece of juicy breast and pop it in my mouth anyway. I have never before had barbecue with such an exotic aroma. Cumin, cloves and garlic make quite a grill rub, and they combine stunningly with the slight gaminess of the quail. The birds are basted with ghee (clarified butter) to keep them moist. Abdul is watching me eat my little bird with wide eyes and a big smile. I realize I am making a lot of appreciative noises.

He is focusing his own efforts on the little metal hot pot that contains the karahi gosht, which turns out to be a sort of Pakistani pot roast. The well-cooked piece of beef falls apart easily under the little plastic knife. The meat is cooked in a spicy tomato sauce that combines the familiar tomato sauce elements of green onions, jalapeños and garlic with the Far Eastern zing of fresh ginger and aromatic masala. Abdul eats his meat and sauce folded in little pieces of nan bread.

The barbecue combination plate is a major disappointment. And it's made worse when I realize that I have made this same mistake many times before. When I hear the word kabab I always think of shish kebabs. But kabab does not mean skewered meat in India or Pakistan; it means ground meat. When I was told the combination plate consisted of chicken boti tikah and seekh kabab, I envisioned barbecued chicken and beef grilled on a skewer. What I get is grilled chicken and two ground meat patties. (Now all I need is special sauce and a sesame seed bun.)

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