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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.
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.)
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.
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).
Shahenshah, 9651 Bissonnet, (713)773-4455
A $5.99 Pakistani lunch buffet is served Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday brunch is $6.99. Don't miss the goat curry.
Sheikh Chilli's, 11303 Bissonnet, (281)568-7503
Sheikh Chilli's is famous for its nahari, a Pakistani favorite. It's a hot and spicy beef curry flavored with fresh ginger and slow-cooked for 12 hours or more. $5.99 per plate.
Kiosk at Ali Baba's, 11887 Bissonnet, (281)879-5787
Need a betel nut fix? This little kiosk has a nice selection of flavored seeds and paan fillings as well as the paan parg (betel nut-tobacco chew).
E-mail Robb Walsh at firstname.lastname@example.org.