Spice Shack

Humble surroundings, not-so-humble food: Some of the great Indian dishes at Kabobs

Humble surroundings, not-so-humble food: Some of the great Indian dishes at Kabobs

Kabobs Restaurant
7814 Portland Ave. S., Bloomington

Minneapolis, St. Paul—we have a doppelganger! Smack dab on the other side of the earth, in the middle of India, sit Hyderabad and Secundabad, which the locals know as the Twin Cities. These other twin cities are full of lakes, some manmade, earning them one nickname of "the cities of lakes." Upon these lakes you will find the white-collar folks of Hyderabad boating, yachting, enjoying dinner cruises, and, as far as I can tell, generally cavorting exactly like we do on Lake Minnetonka.

Just as Minneapolis and St. Paul straddle the split in the U.S. between east and west—with St. Paul known as the last city of the east, and Minneapolis called the first city of the west—Hyderabad and Secundabad split India upon its most significant axis, so the cities are known as both the gateway to the north and the gateway to the south. Frightening, no? I'm telling you, they've even got a resort on the outskirts of the metropolitan area called Treasure Island. The mind boggles. If you went there, would you run into an Indian version of yourself, and if you did, would you like what you'd see? More importantly for my purposes: Would you like what you'd eat?

If you'd like to know the answer to that question, proceed immediately to Kabobs, Minnesota's first eatery specializing in the food of Hyderabad. This tiny little semi-restaurant opened last October in the Town & Country strip mall on Portland Avenue just south of 494, and the food—largely Hyderabadi, the rest mostly northern Indian and Pakistani—is often stupendous. Where should I start? Be sure you start with whatever samosas they've got: The vegetable samosas (two for $2) are sparrow-brown, shatteringly crisp bundles stuffed with buttercup-colored potatoes and green peas. They smolder and roar like a bonfire, for they are very savory and very spicy—dip them in their accompanying bright-green fresh cilantro sauce to cool them and add further dimension. The chicken samosas (also two for $2) have a bit of sweet spice to them, but are densely meaty, and even more fiery; the beef ones (two for $2.50) have a similar sweet spiciness, but smolder instead of singe.

Once your samosas are on the way, you simply must order a biryani. I have had countless biryanis in the Twin Cities these last ten years, and now that I've had Kabobs' I realize I've been eating mud, or at least the rice version of mud. Here, each grain of rice in the biryani is half an inch long, curly, fluffy, moist, and as separate from its brothers as are potato chips in a bowl—it looks like rice, but then, it doesn't. When you taste it, you realize: This is why this dish has so many millions of imitators, and why so many people are happy to eat the poor imitations. Kabobs offers a plain vegetable biryani ($5.99) with lima beans, carrots, and such; a chicken one ($6.99) with hacked pieces of chicken marinated in a sour and spicy buttermilk brew that leaves the bird tender and paper-pale; a mutton; and a goat biryani ($8.99 each).

The "Chicken 65" ($6.99) is another must-order; here you get India's answer to the buffalo wing: hot, hot, spicy, hot, red-dyed bits of boneless chicken that have all the appeal of a bucket of magic wishes. You find your fork snaking into the plate for yet another and yet another piece when you know you should have stopped five pieces ago. Like all great dishes, Chicken 65 even has competing origin myths—some say that it originally had 65 spices in the coating, some that the first version had 65 chili peppers for every kilo of meat, some that it had something to do with the 1965 war, others that it was simply number 65 on the menu of the restaurant that created it. Whatever the true story, please know that this stuff gets some of its unforgettable tang from dried green mango powder, and is, as of this writing, far and away my most memorable new dish of the year.

Some other great dishes I tried included daily specials of dum ka chicken ($6.99), buttery bits of chicken cooked forever over a low heat in a sealed vessel—this tangy, creamy sauce was so good that I considered picking up the bowl and guzzling the liquid in an effort to make myself one with its excellence. I had the same passionate love for a special of khatti daal ($4.99), a version of the classic Indian lentil dish that's tart, gingery, and balanced with notes of some mysterious, deep, leafy thing—I say "mysterious" because if you ask the folks behind the counter about the remarkable flavors, they will simply smile and reply that the key is in the secret family recipes. Sigh. In any event, I was saved from drinking the khatti daal and dum ka chicken sauce because the just-made, perfectly crisp and tender naan ($1.25) and garlic naan ($2) allowed me to more elegantly sop up as much as I could.

The last of my must-order dishes is the reshmi kabobs ($7.99), finely ground patties of marinated chicken, spices, and herbs molded around thick shish-kabob spears and low-heat grilled until they are spoon-tender, flavor-saturated as candy, savory as a whole buffet, and spicy as all get out. These kabobs, and all of Kabobs' kabobs—including a thin-pounded, chili-marinated steak one and a tangy lamb one—are served on a bed of lettuce with lemons, cucumbers, onion slices, and two little pots of sauce, one a tangy, fiery chili sauce, the other a loose, cilantro-laced yogurt raita. One time I smashed one of these reshmi kabobs into a piece of naan with the lettuce, onions, and both sauces, and thought: This is one of earth's perfect sandwiches, a hero worthy of elevation to the pantheon of other sandwich deities, such as meatball sub, Philly cheesesteak, falafel, and so forth. I really thought that. I still do.

Now that I've shared my most intimate thoughts, be aware that I also know yours. You're thinking: Kid, you're nuttier than a pecan grove, you're battier than the K-Mart impulse aisle at Halloween, you're cracked worse than the Liberty Bell. There's no way there's a restaurant right off 494 where I can eat Indian food that good for, like, $10 a head. Well, you're partly right. This place is hardly a restaurant. If you dine here, you will order off a menu consisting of poster board and office paper taped to the wall. You will sit at tables that look like they lived three lives in fast food before they got here. While the various kabobs and so forth are served on real plates, if you decide to dine family-style and share with your date, you will eat from paper plates that you fetch yourself from a cart stashed beneath the menu posters. To say that the place has the ambience of an office closet is being charitable. As much as I love the food here, I mostly recommend thinking of Kabobs right now as the perfect Indian takeout—which, I'll add, they do beautifully and sensitively, the naan foil-wrapped, the Chicken 65 and kabobs in different sorts of containers meant to keep the food secure.

When I spoke to the restaurant's owner, Hyderabad native Ather Jameel, he told me that Kabobs' current incarnation is, if things go well, only temporary anyway. Jameel explained that he worked for many years in IT, and then owned a Halal slaughterhouse near Northfield, but, he said, he sees those jobs as steps to fulfilling his dream of bringing excellent Halal food to Minnesota. To further that dream, he opened Kabobs using his family's secret recipes, but this low-key version is nothing but a "test kitchen" to see whether his food will fly. "Being an IT guy, I didn't want to take a whole lot of risk with a startup," Jameel explained.

You can get some sense of the ambition of the place by checking out Kabobs' website, which looks like it belongs to a multimillion-dollar restaurant chain, not a four-table takeout next to the highway. (Please note, if you do visit the website, that the menu isn't entirely in line with what they offer on-site.) Will we all look back at Kabobs' humble start with the same nostalgia with which people now remember the original seven-table restaurant that held Quang, the original no-ambience Tacos Morelos, or the first strip-mall Rainbow Chinese? I've been in this business long enough to see that sometimes the mightiest oaks really do grow from the tiniest acorns, so I'll keep watching, and eating, with great relish. While I do, I'll contemplate the great unknown questions of life, like: Do you think there's some Minnesotan on the outskirts of Hyderabad quietly opening a lefse and wild-rice shack?