Taste of Pakistan almost reminds me of the feeling of going out to eat in Los Angeles, which often entails finding great food in a strip mall, parking right in front. Nevermind that I arrived by public transportation and the air was humid on both visits, Staten Island has an enjoyable "out of the city" quality that I try to enjoy whenever I come.
A lot of South Asian restaurants in the city advertise themselves as "Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi" cuisine, many times the smaller countries use India's better name recognition to entice customers inside. It is refreshing to see places like this, that celebrate the home country of the chef, even when the cuisines still overlap.
With a banner outside announcing "Best Kebab Kitchen," it seemed appropriate to order a variety of these on my first visit. Half of the fun turns out to be making flavor combinations with the assortment of condiments they bring out. Two yogurt chutneys, a sweet fruit one, and some spicy pepper sauce can combine to make each bite different.
An array of naan is also available from the oven, from plain to butter and sesame, all the way to potato and qeema varieties. I opted for a simple garlic naan ($2.50, below) to accompany my kebab assortment. It is thin, crispy, and tasty, but somehow I prefer my naan to be puffy and soft. On the second visit, a plain naan ($1, see below) was more satisfying.
While waiting for an order, a look around the place shows they probably put their focus in the kitchen. The decor can be described as "brown," while the pistachio colors of the booths do not quite qualify for interior design. Stacks of postcard adverts and a handwritten "room for rent" sign on lined paper are the decor. The smells are good though, and we're not here for design advice.
The plate below, clockwise from bottom, consists of a chapli kebab ($3.99), seekh kebab ($1.25), one order of gola kebabs ($2.99 for 2), and a chicken tandoori leg ($3.99) which as you can see had an extra piece. That chicken had a pleasantly fragrant taste and the crunch of its visible spices stuck to the skin. Inside the meat was moist and tender.
As for the kebabs themselves, the only other one that was moist was the seekh, which is ground chicken. The chapli kebab patty and gola kebabs were drier and perfect for experimenting with all the chutneys.
That first visit was on a Friday night, and my eyes immediately scanned to the "weekend special" section, browsing the choices that were unavailable that night. My next visit naturally landed on a Sunday so that I could sample some of the dishes. With plans to buy three and take two home, I was disappointed to find the paya ($10.99), a soup made of goat hooves that is cooked for festivals or special guests was not made that day.
With three other options, I settled into a nice bowl of haleem ($7.99, below), a stew of chicken, lentils, and plenty of spices. The menu describes a "thick paste" but do not let that distract you, it is delicious. It is made thicker by pounded wheat, but scoops up perfectly with the naan.
At steam table restaurants, haleem will often just be served on a styrofoam plate with rice, but here the dish is cooked special only on weekends and they serve it properly with a plate of extras to add. On that plate is lemons, parsley, fried onions, slivers of ginger and chopped chilis, allowing each diner to eat it exactly as they prefer.
Also available was nihari ($8.99, below), which I enjoyed later at home. This is another slow-cooked stew, this time of beef cubes in a rich, oily soup. It pairs well with both rice or bread.
In the restaurant it would have also been served with the plate of garnishes, and one would be sure to add a healthy squeeze of lemon and as much chili as desired. The fun story about nihari is that many restaurants in South Asia that cook the best versions are said to add some of the leftovers each night into the next day's pot. Check out this story, which claims that some shops have continued this tradition of saving the leftovers, or taar, for over a century!
Since Taste of Pakistan only serves nihari on weekends, it is safe to say their stew is somewhat younger than 100 years old. They also make a wonderful mango lassi ($3.50, not pictured), make sure to order at least one. The friendly staff is happy to answer questions, and both times I visited they warned me I was over ordering. I like their honesty.