A Spicy Family Affair

Members of the Pakwan clan spin off Daawat, featuring cheap yet outstanding Pakistani cuisine.

When I called Daawat to let them know I would be publishing a review, I had to ask. “Are you planning to expand?”

Daawat is built along the same lines as the Pakistani chains that have multiplied around the Bay Area in the past five years, namely Naan ‘n’ Curry, Shalimar, and Pakwan. In fact, I recognized one of the owners, a tall, sallow guy, from the years he worked at Pakwan.

Indeed, Azhar Khan and his brother-in-law, Zahid Abbas, are part of the family that owns Pakwan. But the two branches of the family went separate ways, and eleven months ago Khan and Abbas moved south to open their own place in a Union City strip mall.

What has made these chains so popular in the Bay Area is their broadly spiced, dirt-cheap food. And Dawaat hasn’t messed much with the formula. Nothing costs more than $6, so you can eat well for $10 and extravagantly for $15. To keep prices down Khan and Abbas also copied the serve-yourself format, where you place your order at the counter in back and pick up your own silverware, plates, and glasses from the front. The refrigerator case is stocked with sodas, carafes of water, and squeeze bottles of chutney for diners to take to the table, and a thermos dispenses free chai.

Unlike their competitors, however, the brothers-in-law don’t ask diners to take a number and come for their food when it’s called. You won’t hear the constant squawking of the microphone or ogle parties staring each other down over a contested basket of naan. You know what’s yours because the cooks bring it to you.

Five years ago many of the dishes on Daawat’s menu — achar gosht, saag dal, boti kebab — seemed incredibly foreign, but in the Pakwan age they’re old hat. What sets Daawat apart from its predecessors, then? The food. At present, the owners’ one-restaurant policy translates into more loving attention devoted to the curries, kebabs, and breads. Eating some of Daawat’s dishes reminded me of the first time I marveled over the black cardamom pod I picked out of my palak aloo at Shalimar, the restaurant that started it all a decade ago. I felt that same excitement dredging my naan through the achar gosht, the twinge of the pickled peppers in the gravy just as sharp as the lamb it coated was rich.

The cooks don’t mess around with kulchas, parathas, and rotis. They specialize in naan and naan alone, and the tandoor-cooked bread is a main attraction, offering a little of everything you want out of a piece of bread: Soft and airy in parts, bubbled and crackly in others, charred and smoky around the edges.

Reflecting Pakistan’s closer ties with the rest of the Muslim world, perhaps, the list of Daawat’s kebabs is more varied than your average Indian restaurant’s. My friends Kaushik and Denise have been searching out Muslim street kebabs since Kaushik moved to the States from Bangalore. For four years I’ve watched them dismiss kebab after kebab with a disappointed “It’s not quite right.” Whatever the missing spice was, they found it in Daawat’s bihari kebab, chunks of lean beef crusted thickly in a reddish paste of yogurt and spices. Not that I could taste it — I got the charred smokiness from the tandoor, perhaps a woodsier cast to the spicing — but even without the nostalgia I was smitten.

You can order chicken tikka at Daawat, but you can also find reshami kebab, a tender, aromatic sausage of ground chicken mixed with fresh herbs and molded around a skewer. The cooks even roast sole in the tandoor. The marinade, red as a Chinese wedding, completely overcame the delicate flavor of this delicate fish. All that remained of the fish was its cottony texture — the rest was a thick wash of heat and spice.

The success of the kebabs on my first visit encouraged me to try the biryani on my second. A relative of pilaf, this rice dish is one of the glories of the Moghul (Muslim) empire that once controlled Northern India. Biryani is still a feast-day dish, one that requires much care to properly layer the meat, vegetables, spices, nuts, and parboiled rice in a pot, then to seal it shut with salt dough and bake it. With that kind of buildup, the bland rice and dry meat that most restaurants call biryani is an offense. Daawat’s chicken biryani, though, was one of the highlights of the meal. Digging through the golden rice I spotted clumps of caramelized onions, matted together with chopped spices. Green chiles. Broken bay leaves. A few cumin seeds, a whiff of asafetida. I brought the leftovers home for lunch the next day, and fifteen minutes after my last bite, I sniffed the air and sensed cinnamon. Now, that’s what wine geeks call a long finish.

One of the best things about lower-priced Indian and Pakistani restaurants is that you can afford to order a complete meal with rice or bread, dal, vegetables, and meat. At $5 a plate, it’s also easy to forgive the dishes that aren’t quite as memorable. Such as the mirchi salan, an oily, tamarind-sour purée of peppers — basically achar gosht without the punch. The bengan bhurta, stewed eggplant, was heavy on the tomatoes and onions. We liked it enough to finish it, but not enough to remember it afterward. Kaushik and Denise murmured their approval to each other over the dal makhni, a mild dal made with black lentils simmered with cream, but without an insider’s palate I found it dull. I much preferred the next visit’s saag dal, yellow split peas cooked with spinach; toasted onions in the masala gave it a nutty, deep-rooted flavor.

Again following tradition, Daawat offers a couple of desserts, served in small plastic cups, on the honor system: Pick your sweets from the refrigerated case and pay for them later. Their gulab jamun, deep-fried balls of fresh cheese soaked in a spiced syrup, was true to form, as bracing in its sweetness as an iron pole in winter. Some people won’t let it near their tongues — others can’t resist the sensation. Less achingly sugary was the rice pudding; ground pistachios scattered across its surface tempered the sweetness of the creamy delight.

Two other things distinguish Daawat from its competitors. Though the white-walled, white-tiled room is more functional than comfortable, the owners take a mop to it frequently. If you drop a piece of food onto your table, you won’t hesitate to eat it afterward. Second are the owners. No yelling, no scowling — heck, they even smile at their customers. And if it’s possible, they’ll indulge special requests.

The answer to the initial question I put to Khan is yes, he and Abbas hope to open a second Daawat in a year or so. My advice to diners: Go now, while their talent is concentrated in one place.

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