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Multicultural Masala

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

The chicken leg quarter has been marinated in masala spices and grilled beautifully. It falls off the bone with no resistance. I heap the chicken meat on a piece of nan with some lettuce, tomato and yogurt and roll it up into a fine taco. Not quite as rich as the quail, but very close. Abdul encourages me to do the same with some of the ground meat, but I complain that the kabab is too dry. He yells something in Urdu to the cook.

The cook comes to our table with another Styrofoam bowl. I chuckle as I slather my kabab with the brown sauce in the bowl. It has the same sort of sweet-and-sour effect on the meat that barbecue sauce does, except this barbecue sauce is a sort of thin tamarind chutney. I think the kabab is made from frozen hamburger patties. In Pakistan, kabab is made with goat or mutton.

The ready supply of cheap ground beef in Texas is a delight to Pakistani immigrants. In Pakistan, where goat is the most common meat, ground beef is considered a real luxury. The guy sitting at the table beside us is polishing off a plate of masala kabab ($4.99), hamburger meat cooked with masala spices and served in a little hot pot with fluffy nan on the side, a Pakistani sloppy joe. For $2.99 you can also get a dish called a bun kabab, better known in the rest of Houston as a hamburger on a bun.

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.

Abdul says when it's hot outside and you have eaten a big meal like this one, you should drink a large glass of the sour yogurt drink called lassi to prevent heartburn. So I follow his advice. As we leave, he also buys me a strange little package at the kiosk at the front of the restaurant. Paan, he calls it. It's a betel nut chew. Pakistanis and Indians are crazy about betel nut. Mine is flavored with anise seeds and sweetened lentils. His is betel nut and tobacco mixed together (paan parg). We drive away in silence as I ruminate in the backseat.

What do I really think about Ali Baba's? On a purely culinary level, I can say that the batair boti is the best grilled quail for the money I have ever eaten. And at $4.99, the Afghani boti tikah -- a steaming piece of nan and a skewer-load of grilled beef with lettuce, tomato and sauces in a Styrofoam to-go box -- is a hell of a bargain, too. But I can also say with some certainty that the broken chairs and splattered walls here would frighten hygiene- conscious types (like my mother) half to death. Of course, so would most old-fashioned Texas barbecue joints. Authenticity can be a scary thing.

In her authoritative 1973 cookbook, An Invitation to Indian Cooking, Madhur Jaffrey told us that the food served at Indian restaurants in New York was a bland, watered-down version of the real thing. In 2000 A.D. restaurants like Ali Baba's have turned the tables on those who complain about a lack of authenticity. The Hart-Cellar Act of 1965, which removed discriminatory "country of origin" quotas from American immigration law, has resulted in a slow, steady surge of immigration from Africa, the Far East and other corners of the planet that were once under-represented.

A new style of ghetto has emerged in Houston and Los Angeles, where first-generation mom-and-pop restaurants take over strip center locations in once rundown suburbs. Often a second generation opens another restaurant in newer quarters and offers a partially assimilated version of the cuisine. The evolution of Kim Son from a humble Vietnamese eatery to a budding chain is a case in point. The beauty of the current situation is that between the extremes of just-like-back-home ethnic food and the inevitable chain version lie enough varying degrees of authenticity to suit everybody's tastes.

Brain masala, hamburger kabab and many of the other dishes served at Ali Baba's reflect the preferences of Houston's Pakistani population. These foods are too authentic for most of us. But for exactly that reason, Ali Baba's offers Lonely Planet types a ticket to Pakistan for the price of a five-dollar lunch. I love culinary adventures, and I had a great time eating lunch and arguing politics with Abdul at Ali Baba's. ("India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have all had female prime ministers, so where do you Americans get off lecturing us about women's rights?")

If rubbing elbows with the natives while eating a skewer of masala-rubbed quail hot off the grill in the Islamabad bazaar is your preferred level of authenticity, Ali Baba's is your kind of place.

Houston's Little Islamabad

There are approximately 50,000 Pakistanis in Houston. The heaviest concentration of Pakistani businesses is on Bissonnet west of Highway 59. In this neighborhood, you can pick up a quick boti tikah to go (grilled beef, served with hot, fluffy nan bread, lettuce, tomato and yogurt) or sit down to a Pakistani buffet. There are seven Pakistani or Indo-Pakistani restaurants in the area, and the food is strictly authentic. There are also kiosks here where you can find the unique Indo-Pakistani after-dinner treat called paan (betel nut leaves filled with various combinations of exotic chewy mixtures).

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