An unusual incident sparked my interest in Kashmir. It occurred about 5 years ago while dining at Shalimar, a perpetually packed Indian/Pakistani dive in San Francisco.
One evening, N and I stopped by the restaurant to get our fix of kababs. Shalimar is like a small breakaway republic with inscrutable Byzantine rules that only the initiated can comprehend. One of the rules states that diners cannot place their orders until they secure a place to sit. Thus, the grease and smoke stained dining room becomes a Darwinian game of musical chairs, where only the most obnoxious and lucky survive.
This day, however, with the dining room hopelessly crowded, one of the bussers mercifully took on the role of host. After a brief wait in the longest line I have witnessed at Shalimar, we were surprised when this "host" asked us to follow him. He led us away from the dining room, down a narrow, unlit corridor along the side of the building. Out of the darkness we stepped into a brightly lit room, where people were sitting on sofas and chairs with plates of food on their laps as if they were at a friend's house.
Our host escorted us to the only table in the room, which we discovered was an office desk. N sat regally on a leather office chair at the desk, while I sat along the side on a folding chair. The restaurant was so crowded, they were seating customers in their office!
Under a layer of glass, there was a map proudly displayed on the desktop. The map was of Kashmir, except the Line of Control that divides the region between Pakistan and India was missing. The map was of a united Kashmir. Unfortunately, I can't recall if it showed the nation as independent or as a part of Pakistan. From that point on, we have referred to this office as the Shalimar War Room.
Today, as part of my "In Praise of Kashmir" series (with the hope that my posts will help raise awareness of the survivors of the earthquakes and encourage my readers to buy raffle tickets to donate to the Menu for Hope II), I am taking you on a field trip to the few blocks surrounding Shalimar, a seedy part of San Francisco's Tenderloin District. In an article that appeared in the Chronicle 2 years ago, local writer Sandip Roy dubbed the area that centers on the intersection of Jones and O'Farrell Streets the "Tandoor-loin," due to the high number of Pakistani tandoori restaurants found there. We won't find any Kashmiri restaurants here (as far as I know that aren't any in the Bay Area), but the next best thing are these Pakistani-owned dhabas.
As readers of V.K. Narayanan's blog My Dhaba know, a dhaba is a quick-service roadside restaurant found in Northern India that serves tandoori meats, naan and strong chai to truckers, cabdrivers, and the like. A decade ago, Naeem Mohammad opened Shalimar on Jones Street near O'Farrell, because he correctly perceived that San Francisco's many Pakistani cabbies needed a dhaba where they could grab a quick bite. He named his restaurant after the famous Shalimar Garden that Mughal Emperor Jahangir built for his wife Nur Jahan in Srinagar, the largest city in Kashmir.
Mr. Mohammad's timing couldn't have been any better. Shalimar's opening also coincided with the Dot-Com boom. Many South Asian engineers, who had left their countries to seek their fortunes in the Bay Area, grew homesick for the taste of dhaba-style street food. When word of Shalimar's existence got out, these engineers, along with other South Asians and adventurous "chowhounds," headed there from all over the Bay Area.
Seeing the crowds at Shalimar, other imitators quickly followed. Tandoori dhabas sprouted like mushrooms within a two minute walk from Shalimar. Naan n' Curry, Pakwan, Lahore Karahi, Chutney, Shalimar Garden and Little Deli opened their doors, all with menus similar to Shalimar's, but slight differences in atmosphere. Chutney, for example, is a little cleaner and fancier. The cooks at Lahore Karahi added saucier dishes to the formula. These dishes are cooked in a kadai (also spelled karahi), the cast-iron wok-shaped pot favored by north Indian and Pakistani cooks.
Shalimar and some of the imitators have gone on to open multiple locations in other parts of the city and Bay Area. In fact, because a couple of these new dhabas are closer to my house, with a Naan n' Curry in the Sunset and a Pakwan in the Mission, I rarely visit the Tandoor-loin, having lost the impetus to battle for first a parking space and then a table at Shalimar.
On our trip today, we can see that some of these restaurants, including the original Naan n' Curry, have closed (it relocated a few blocks away, perhaps to move out from under the shadow of Shalimar). The new businesses have fortunately retained the Islamic character of the neighborhood. Shalimar Garden was replaced by another Indian/Pakistani restaurant, Mela Tandoori Kitchen, which is really too upscale to call a dhaba. Though no longer serving South Asian cuisine, the tiny location that once housed Little Deli is still serving food from a Muslim country, in this case Morocco. Even the one Thai restaurant in the Tandoor-loin exclusively serves halal meats.
Let's grab a bite to eat at my favorite dhaba, Shalimar! It's lunch time and I'm by myself, so I can sadly only order one item and a naan. There will be no "beef burger roll" (a seekh kabab wrapped in a naan) or "brain masala." As I said, I haven't come to Shalimar in quite some time, probably about a year, so I can't resist ordering what is, in my opinion, the best chicken dish in the city, the murgh boti tandoori, or chicken skewers. Others can plunk down $38 for the famous two-pound whole chicken at Zuni, served with a (admittedly tasty) salad of stale bread. I'll happily savor every succulent bite of my freshly baked spicy chicken and fluffy-chewy naan-a-Akhbar, both hot and smoky from the mesquite-fired tandoor. The chicken comes with tender, saucy chickpeas, known on the menu as kabli chana, a wedge of lime and sliced onions. The meal is completed by the complimentary cups of masala chai and the bottle of coriander chutney. Total cost is about $12, tip included.
Besides these half dozen restaurants, there is a halal butcher/grocer, Salama Halal Meats. The owner here is the one who advised me on the proper variety of green tea to make the Kashmiri tea kahva. All the meats they sell, including beef, lamb and chicken, are halal, but it is helpful to know a bit of anatomy to specify which cuts you want.
Click the button below to be taken to the donation page where you can buy a raffle ticket for yourself or, as Sam of Becks & Posh suggested, as a gift to others on your holiday shopping list. According to Pim, the host and founder of Menu for Hope II, there are still some gift items that have very few bidders (so your chances of winning are much higher!). Remember, whether you win or lose, all of the money raised will be donated to UNICEF to aid the victims of the massive earthquake that struck Kashmir in October. Thank you.
I just checked and over $11,000 have been raised so far, with 2 days still to go! Wow!
532 Jones St. (near O'Farrell)
511 Jones St. (at O'Farrell)
501 O'Farrell St. (at Jones)
Mela Tandoori Kitchen
417 O'Farrell (near Taylor)
612 O'Farrell St. (near Leavenworth)
Salama Halal Meats
604 Geary St. (at Jones)