Pak Zam Zam brings a bit of Pakistan to Nordeast

Don't confuse it with Indian: The Bihari kabab, paratha bread, and cucumber sauces

Don't confuse it with Indian: The Bihari kabab, paratha bread, and cucumber sauces

So far as I know, Pak Zam Zam is the only Pakistani restaurant in Minnesota—and it may also be the brightest restaurant in the state. Its walls are painted Coca-Cola red and tangerine orange, and its fluorescent lights are so glaring that surgery seems as likely as lunch. Its Central Avenue storefront feels just as Spartan as it did when it housed a Bollywood video store. Aside from a photo of the Taj Mahal and a crop-art image of a rooster, the looped electronic cables hanging from the ceiling are about the only things that qualify as decor—unless you count the adorable baby sleeping in a bassinet near the cooler.

The baby's mother, Uzma Qadir, who is a fixture at the front register, came from Pakistan to the United States to marry her husband, Saud, after their parents arranged the match. The Qadirs spent a decade in Houston before moving to Minnesota this summer to be closer to Uzma's sister and to open what is, as far as they know, the Twin Cities' only Pakistani restaurant. With just two other employees, Uzma and Saud's eatery is very much a family place. (On a couple of my visits, one corner of the dining room contained a shredded coloring book and half a plastic toy, like a playroom in need of picking up.) Pak Zam Zam is such a small operation that a family illness or emergency might cause the Qadirs to temporarily close the restaurant (like the night I had to settle for a dry pork cutlet at the neighboring Porky's).

Pak Zam Zam, which is named after a holy Muslim site, has certainly bucked the "upscale ethnic" trend we've seen at places like the chic Indian restaurant Dancing Ganesha. Eschewing designer digs and fancy cocktails, Pak Zam Zam has focused on generous portions at low prices—nothing costs more than $10. While dirty trays topped with used Styrofoam plates and cups tend to pile up between customers, Pak Zam Zam isn't a dive. It's the underdog you want to root for as hard as you did for Jamal in Slumdog Millionaire.

Since Pakistan shares strong historical ties with India, many of their dishes overlap, including a few biryani, dal, and tandoori items. But Uzma, Pak Zam Zam's chief cook, says that while Pakistanis use some of the same spices as Indians—cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, and pepper, among others—differences in seasoning give Pakistani dishes a distinct flavor. "We use the same materials," she says, "but in a different way." Another divergence: Many Indians are vegetarian, so Pakistani diets tend to contain more meat. Also, most Indians don't eat beef due to their Hindu beliefs, while Pakistanis, most of whom are Muslim, typically do. Some of the Twin Cities' Indian restaurants may cook with a bit of Pakistani influence, Uzma says, but they generally don't make the more unusual dishes, such as Middle Eastern-influenced kababs or the popular Muslim stew nihari. "They don't really know the Pakistani food," Uzma says.

To understand the differences, the best way to begin may be with a cup of hot tea, a thick, milky brew with a frothy, crema-like top and a touch of aromatic spices that make it taste like a mellower, maltier version of chai. At 75 cents, it's one of the cheapest winter warm-ups in town. The restaurant's small paper menu contains a number of scratched-out items and several pen-scrawled additions, so unless you came in with a craving for something, the best strategy is to ask Uzma for a recommendation.

She'll likely suggest the chana dal, which is the best dal I've ever tasted. It's made with beans that look like yellow split peas but are in fact a variety of small chickpea called desi, which have been split and had their skins removed. The beans had the texture of creamy pearls, soft without being mushy, and were infused with the smoky, buttery flavors of caramelized onions and garlic. Fiery red chilies and fresh cilantro added competing heating and cooling elements. Another bean dish, choley, which is made with the more familiar kabuli chickpea, demonstrates the wonders Pakistani cooks can work with a legume unloved by most Americans. When stewed with a mixture of tomatoes, onions, chili powder, and masala, the humble beans taste as if they should cost as much as caviar.

I also liked Uzma's Pakistani-style biryani, which omits the vegetables, dried fruits, and turmeric often found in Indian biryanis. It has a simpler, more rustic feel: chunks of tender, on-the-bone chicken buried in a pile of buttery basmati rice. The meat was so tasty, infused with the sweetness of cloves, that I gnawed it right down to bone.

The chapli kabab is one of the Pakistani-Afghani dishes not seen in Indian restaurants, Uzma says. One might think of it as a Pashtun hamburger—a highly seasoned ground beef patty that roars into your mouth like a stampede of wild cattle when compared to its more domesticated cousins. The grilled meat had a more substantial chew and char than an American burger, and it easily stood on its own without toppings. If you do want to modify its spiciness, though, a side of green chili mint sauce can kick up the heat, while a yogurt-cumin one can temper it.

Roasted meats are big at Pak Zam Zam (a sign on the front door advertises "so many varieties of grill"), and the cooking process imparts rich, smoky flavors to meats like the chicken boti kabab. While a lengthy marinade makes the meat tender, in this case I thought it took that texture too far, as the chicken seemed pasty and chalky, almost like the pieces of meat had been formed from mashed potato buds. I also didn't care much for the goat karahi, as even a spicy-sweet, ginger-tinged curry couldn't cover the meat's funky barnyard flavor or gumminess.

But the South Asian flatbread, paratha, should have more universal appeal. The discs look like the surface of the moon, dimpled with brown spots and dusted with a fine black charcoal. The bread is created by repeatedly stretching the dough, drizzling it with ghee, and folding it (creating the layers one finds in biscuits or croissants), and its flakiness rivals that of a blue-ribbon piecrust. The puri (or poori) breakfast breads are equally addictive. They're made from the same dough, but raised longer and deep-fried to become puffy and blistered. On weekend mornings, Pak Zam Zam serves the traditional halva puri, with sides of choley, potato aloo, and a dish known as halva. Uzma described the halva as being like grits, as it's something of a cross between cous cous and polenta, tiny clumps cooked to take on a buttery, slightly gelatinous consistency, then sweetened with sugar and dyed bright orange with food coloring, as per tradition.

So far, Pak Zam Zam has been drawing an even split of Pakistani and Indian customers, with a few Caucasians in the mix. The clientele includes young South Asians in designer blue jeans along with those from older generations, including conservative-looking businessmen and a woman swathed entirely in a burqa, which revealed nothing but her eyes. At Pak Zam Zam, Pakistanis and Indians eat side by side, despite the violence going on between their home countries. (Uzma says she can't understand the militant attacks in Pakistan and India and blames the trouble on bad politics. "Why are they doing this?" she asks. "Here in America, we don't even care about it. We like them and they like us.")

Perhaps Pak Zam Zam's future success is already predestined, but I couldn't help wanting to play a part. Every time I left the restaurant, I took on the role of marketing manager, tipping Pak Zam Zam's flimsy sign back into place from its fallen position, facedown in the snow.