Restaurants in this country really do confound me. They're open one day, and all boarded up the next. A press release might have announced a cultural culinary event at a restaurant, but no one, save maybe the chef [IF you're lucky] would know about it. Or a restaurant might be running a special this week according to fellow foodies who just visited the place - except that when you call to book, the special is suspiciously over...or ma'am, it may be extended to a date [that will be left in limbo] until the chef [in a moment of utter and unrestrained inspiration] decides what that [momentous] end date should be. OR, you may have invited a bunch of friends to a cafe...which you realize, as you peek through the dark windows, is shut...on MONDAYS?!
Logic is sometimes a starved notion with the restaurants in this city.
One has 3 options in this bleak, unpredictable, the end may be tomorrow...or at the chef's discretion world:
Option 1) Call before you go. And hope that the person who picks up can understand what you're asking, because often, restaurants don't feel compelled to invest in survival communications training. Be wary of any information you get when the conversation remotely starts resembling the following:
Hi, where is your restaurant?
Do I take a left after the traffic signal, or a right?
Option 2) Keep backup options in the same neighborhood. With one down, have at least two other yummy places around the corner that you can jump ship to. And pray with all your might that Murphy hasn't enforced a law that has shut all three of them down within seconds of your arrival.
Option 3) Stay home and cook. If you're gifted with the same level of culinary talent as myself, the world gets REALLY dark from this point on.
The last time the restaurant world sprung a fast one on me, I executed option 2 and landed up at Al Haj Bundu Khan, a famous age-old Karachi transplant that I'd read about in some online press release.
A special thank you to all my understanding friends - Vineet, Chef Tom, an Eternally Zesty lady blogger, and the Naihar ringleader - who after driving up to a shut-on-mondays restaurant, were then rerouted to this kabab joint around the corner...with the wrong directions. Uncanny how one missing right turn can turn your super simple phone directions to meaningless schmuck + multiple frantic corrective phone calls. Sorry guys, but for the record, I'm crap at directions.
According to the menu, this place had history, a legendary Bundu Khan who was the Pakistani Colonel Sanders of kababs and chicken tikkas. And true enough, the kababs that hit our table had been grilled with the authentic hand of history. We ordered Behari Mutton kababs that equalled the likes of what I'd eaten at Dubai's famed Daily restaurant.
What makes the Bihari kabab so special is that it's not just tender chunks of beef - but beef that's morphed into buttery paste, using what was probably a mix of papaya and yogurt as tenderizers, and with just those mellow, earthy masalas that pay due respect to the kabab, without detracting from its uber macho beefiness. This is one kabab that you can actually sort of...lap up, beef chunks, marinade, et al. [psst. I'm going to inscribe this in my kitchen one day when I walk in to try something more adventurous than a turkey and cheese sammy: Behind every successful kabab is a brilliant marinade.]
Here we have a plate of more meat: logs of Chicken Reshmi Kabab and crusty charred cubes of Chicken Boti Malai (cream). Both kababs were silky soft on the inside, mildly flavored, and perfect when tucked into quarters of naan or plopped atop this impossibly crunchy paratha-puri, aka Bundu Khan's Paratha if you're hunting it out on the menu.
A paratha is a fried flat disc of wheat bread, alternately crispy and soft, depending on which parts of the disc hit the hottest parts of the tawa (griddle). A puri is a poofy little sphere of air, trapped in with a sheer skin of deep fried dough. Both carb concoctions are well-respected in India and across much of the curry-loving world as bread stalwarts in their own right. But imagine if you were to...combine the two??...*NEWTON APPLE THUD* Golden brown flat disc with mini crunchy deep-fried craters and poofy bubbles all along the surface. More bready surface area. More poofy. More crispy. More crunchy. MORE YUMMAY.
If it weren't obvious already, Bundu Khan is a meat eaters lair. Of the four veggie options on the menu, only one was available - the Dal Tadka. Bundo Khan's dal tadka was just a humble bowl of yellow lentils tempered with cumin and coriander and the other usual indian spices...but done in a way that transports you back to a tiny Indian village with a little mud and brick home, a tiny, tiny kitchen, a small motherish woman bent over the chakki rolling out rotis, and a pot of daal and spices slow cooking on the stove, sending its earthy rustic aroma winding through the entire house. [I've never actually lived in a tiny Indian village...but for such vivid, colourful scenes of Indian life that I've experienced vicariously in the comforts of my air-conditioned apartment miles away in Dubai, I thank you Bollywood.]
If I were confined to daal and paratha-puri at Bundu Khan, I'd be a happy camper. Unless the table next to me was plundering a plate of behari kababs...or one of these Special Bun Kababs.
I've professed my love for these egg-coated minced meat patties shoved in a bun before, and I'll do it again. They're hard not to love, unless you shove something ghastly in it like...like...I don't know really. These are just hard to NOT like. The patties are super mushy on the inside (which for a shami kabab first timer, could catch you off guard. But remember, a shami is not a burger. It falls into a different, mushier and more succulent category.), held in with this intricate crackly web of fried egg wash on the outside, and topped off with some raw crunchy purple onions.
One dip of kabab-in-bun into Bundu Khan's tamarind water, a thick swig of buttery salted lassi, and a quick side nibble of a leftover behari kabab, and suddenly...the earth-shattering disappointment brought on an hour earlier by the restaurant that shut itself on Monday...was history. Nothing that came on the table was something I hadn't tasted before, these were all familiar Indo-Pak flavours. But the key is in execution, and I can safely say that Bundo Khan had fried, grilled, mixed and did whatever they were doing in their kitchen in that perfect, homestyle lovin' way.
We were also fed with this screechingly sweet halwa on the table...
...that might have been a result of my whining relentlessly to the servers about not having the Chicken Karahi (wok) or Karahi Keema (minced meat) or Bagaray Baingan or a host of other dishes that sat teasingly on the menu. This was one of those rare times I asserted that I was a food writer who'd come all the way to try their entire range of cooking - and while assertion cannot a bowl of keema magically make, it can lure out a complimentary bowl of pre-made halwa. They were trying to please, and the food that came out on the table made up for the dishes that didn't...but going back to Option 1: CALL before you go and check on everything, including any dishes you'd be heartbroken if you had to leave without trying.
I'll be back to the neighborhood over the weekend to try the restaurant that was shut on Monday. And if for some godforsaken reason it's all boarded up or the chef decides he'd rather be at the park that Friday, then Bundu Khan's little corridor of a restaurant, with its melty behari kababs and village-evoking daal, will be right there to rescue me.
Al Haj Bundu Khan
Phone: +971 (4) 370-9881, (50) 761-1364
Directions: Available on their facebook page here