Pakistani food is not as common as Indian food in the Bay Area, but here’s a tip on how to spot the few restaurants out there: Look for the letter “N.” For some reason, Pakistani restaurateurs have settled on a naming convention that leans heavily on the 14th letter of the alphabet.
There’s the excellent Kabob N Curry’s in Santa Clara. Milpitas has Naan N Masala. Up in Berkeley, one can find the cheap and delicious Naan N Curry. My new favorite is another Milpitas “N” restaurant: Tandoori N Curry.
The restaurant is easy to miss. It’s located in a particularly anonymous strip mall/office complex off Landess Avenue. I almost walked right past it on my second visit. But it’s worth seeking out.
Inside, Tandoori N Curry is a clean but plain-looking place with bright overhead lighting and Formica tables. The furnishings are spare, although there’s free WiFi. But you shouldn’t come here looking for décor or free Internet connections. Come for the food.
The restaurant serves a mix of Indian and Pakistani dishes. By day, Tandoori N Curry offers a lunch buffet of classic Indian treats: tikka masala, dal, tandoori chicken, chana masala and baingan bharta. It’s all quite good, but for me the Pakistani dishes really set the place apart—and for these, one must come for dinner.
India and Pakistan were once the same country, until they were partitioned in 1947. Pakistani food is similar to northern Indian/Punjabi cuisine but is distinct in its own right. Unlike meat-eschewing Indian cuisine, predominantly Muslim Pakistan makes use of beef as well as lamb and goat. Pakistani food is like Indian food only meatier, heartier and often spicier.
It doesn’t look like much, but an order of the haleem ($6.95) should be one of your first stops. The stew is made with chicken, barley and lentils cooked down to a thick yellow gruel. Haleem is typically made with beef, but the chicken gives it a pleasing lightness. There’s also a smoldering spiciness that adds a surprising punch. Slathered onto some of the restaurant’s excellent naan (the lacy onion kulcha, $2, is particularly good), it’s a deeply satisfying plate of mush.
The star of the show is the chicken karahi ($6.95). A karahi is a small, woklike pot used in Pakistan to stir-fry any number of dishes. Chicken karahi is a quick, street-vendor dish made with just a few simple ingredients that are transformed into something greater—at least that’s the case at Tandoori N Curry. White and dark bone-in chicken pieces are tossed with garlic, ginger, tomatoes, turmeric and other spices to create a saucy, spicy dish that’s flat-out delicious. As with the haleem, hunks of hot naan are the requisite accompaniment.
I’ve had nihari, a beef shank stew, before, but I had never tried paya ($7.95), a thick broth made from the same bones that go into the nihari. Paya reportedly plays the role of chicken soup; the thick, nourishing broth is supposed to be great for when you’re feeling under the weather. The paya is quite good here, but it’s more of a homey, grandmothery dish than restaurant food. Stick with the nihari ($7.95).
Our waiter talked up the Hyderbadi dum biryani ($6.95), which consists of chunks of bone-in chicken and ragged pieces of star anise and black cardamom, but it didn’t quite live up to its star billing. But the humble baingan bhartha ($5.50) is not to be missed. Eggplant is slow simmered with onion and a fistful of spices to create a velvety, rich and delicious dish that’s more like a paste than a vegetable dish. It’s the best version of the dish I’ve had.
Desserts include all the South Asian usual suspects—gulab jamun, halwa, rice pudding and homemade Indian ice cream, or kulfi. I’d say go for the kulfi and an order of chicken karahi to go.
Tandoori N Curry
1770 Clear Lake Ave., Milpitas.
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Cuisine: Indian and Pakistani.