Bismillah Cafe: Let's Chaat
See how Inam Moghul makes his ten-spice chicken wings and more in this week's cafe slideshow.
"¡Hola! ¿Cómo estás, amigo?"
This is not the greeting you expect to hear inside a Pakistani chaat house in Little India. But Bismillah Cafe is not your average chaat spot — a casual cafe where one traditionally finds savory South Asian snacks like dahi puri and samosas. You'll find those here, but you'll also find a far broader and deeper menu than nearly any other offered in Houston's Mahatma Gandhi District.
It's a menu filled with chargrilled burgers, spicy chicken wings and homemade pizzas (although you'll need to call ahead for the pizzas, since the pies are baked from scratch). Not your standard chaat dishes, by any stretch of the imagination, but ones that appeal to a wider range of customers as a result. For this reason, Bismillah is also that rare restaurant that caters to the two opposite ends of a spectrum: neophytes who need a familiar jumping-off point into South Asian cuisine and thrill seekers who are constantly in search of the next new thing.
On a recent afternoon, owner Inamullah Moghul offered a smile and a head nod to the customer who had produced the friendly Spanish greeting. Before long, the two men were conversing in a blend of Urdu (the lingua franca of Pakistan) and English while the customer put in his order. Behind him, two blue-collar Hispanic workers were waiting in line. And behind them were two South Asian women with toddlers in tow, one woman in full hijab and the other in Western garb. The 26-seat cafe fills up quickly during lunch and brings in a crowd as diverse as its menu.
Later, as I was polishing off the last of some blindingly hot "ten-spice" tater tots, I noted with glee that one of the Hispanic men was shoveling dahi puri into his mouth with fervor. A man after my own heart, I thought as I watched the puffy puri shells filled with chickpeas and chutney vanish one by one. Bismillah Cafe would be notable for its fusion menu even if its standard snacks weren't that great. But they are.
The dahi puri here are my second favorite in Little India (losing out by a hair to Shiv Sagar, which throws raw white onions into the chutney and a yogurt blend inside each shell), and the samosas are nothing to be trifled with, either. Beef samosas come in a flaky, crispy triangle of dough that resembles an egg roll wrapper, while the far larger aloo samosas fill out a buttery, crumbly pocket studded with fennel seeds and stuffed with spicy potatoes and peas.
Grab-and-go bun kebab — a sandwich made famous in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city — is also fiercely flavored, with a mint chutney on one soft bun that's anything but calm and soothing. On the other bun is Pakistani ketchup, and the two pieces of bread hold between them a mushy patty of lentils and beef that would be too mealy were it not for the shocks of crunchy onions layered between the spicy mint chutney and the patty.
For an extra shock to the system, I like to add a side of fries coated with Moghul's signature ten-spice blend to my bun kebab for an extra $2. Moghul — who goes by "Inam" and breaks into a maddening Cheshire cat grin when you ask him about his special recipes — won't reveal any of the ten spices that go into his "ten chicken" or "ten fries" or "ten chicken wings," but trying to coax out the individual flavors from the pleasant overall burn is half the fun of eating here.
The motto at Bismillah Cafe is simple and printed across the front of each menu so that no one misses it: "If you can take the heat, we can dish it out." Moghul — whose family also runs the nearby Bismillah Restaurant — will adjust the heat levels if you ask, but working your way through his menu is more fun if you let it ride. Eat through the heat and take a few sips of sweet, cool mango lassi along the way if the spices build up too much on your palate.
"What I like the most about Indian and Pakistani food is the way the spices hit so much of my mouth all at once," a friend commented over lunch at Bismillah Cafe one day. "Mexican hot sauce hits my tongue in one spot. Thai food hits my tongue in another spot. Sichuan peppercorns make your mouth completely numb. But with Pakistani food, you can feel the burn all over."
The ten-spice blend that coats so many of Bismillah Cafe's fusion dishes, from chicken sandwiches to tater tots, is the best example of this phenomenon — and it's hotter, even, than the standard Pakistani dishes on the menu. The chicken wings that Bismillah serves come in other flavors, too: barbecue, buffalo, Cajun and peri peri, a blazingly hot pepper native to Zimbabwe, Mozambique and other southern African nations that have long traded with India and Pakistan. It's as hot as the ten-spice but in its own earthy, pungent way.
The ten-spice is lilting and delicate, crackling across your tongue like pinpricks followed by a surprising rush of sweetness. I sometimes swear that I can detect the citrusy flavor of ghost peppers in there alongside the sweet smoke of paprika. Moghul says his ten chicken sandwich is a best-seller, and it's easy to see why: You can experiment with the firecracker sauce in a smaller dose, which is tempered with a wheat bun, cooling lettuce and tomatoes, and a thick slice of Swiss cheese.
Diners who aren't heat-seekers can find other reasons to love Bismillah Cafe, including several iterations of hamburgers. My favorite is the jalapeño burger, about which Moghul demurs: "It's just got a jalapeño cream sauce on it," as if this creation were no big deal at all. The chargrilled patties on all of Bismillah's burgers have that lovely, fatty smack of salt and grease from a well-seasoned grill, and in this case the patty is enhanced with the subtle heat from that jalapeño sauce. To the burger, Moghul adds two kinds of cucumbers — the American dill pickle version and the South Asian raw version — and the standard Bismillah accompaniments of lettuce, tomato and Swiss cheese.
I'm an equally big fan of Bismillah's ruggedly seasoned "Slide n Cruz" sliders, small, hand-formed beef patties (halal, naturally, like all of the meat served here) liberally topped with caramelized onions. To this duo of mini-burgers, I like to add another one of the cafe's claims to fame: the so-called animal-style fries better than those at In-N-Out Burger, where french fries topped with special sauce, cheese and onions are known as one of the California-based burger chain's signature dishes. Yes, better.
The problem with In-N-Out's animal-style fries is how quickly the cheese on top congeals, rendering the entire basket of fries a Gordian knot of potatoes and unpleasantness. Leave it to a Pakistani restaurant in Houston — a city with nary an In-N-Out Burger of its own — to improve upon the original.
Here the fries are covered with a "special sauce" that tastes like Moghul's garlic mayonnaise with a bit of Pakistani ketchup added for color, juicy handfuls of caramelized onions, melted Swiss cheese and the slightest dusting of powdered ten-spice. The animal-style fries are almost too rich to eat on your own; I suggest sharing them with a friend, as chaat is best enjoyed.
Moghul has more than just sliders and animal-style fries up his sleeve, though. He reminds me a bit of a young Kaiser Lashkari, the garrulous Pakistani owner of Himalaya Restaurant just up the street. Curt and businesslike at first, both men become downright chatty when you ask about their food — especially new items they've been fine-tuning in the kitchen.
"I have stuff right now that's not even on the menu," Moghul told me as he rang up my order last week. The second-generation restaurateur has been slowly adding these Pakistani-American mashups over the last five years but has only recently been gaining recognition from fans surprised to find Pakistani pizza in their neighborhood chaat house.
"I've got a donut burger I'm working on," Moghul grinned as he showed off a scrap of paper filled with sketches for ideas, "and a Hawaiian burger with pineapple." They're not on the menu yet, he warned, but will be soon.
"You'll have to come back for those."
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