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Spice of Life 

Al Hamra

Wednesday, Oct 17 2001
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The folks who run 16th Street's Al Hamra (a Pakistani joint) don't always come off as the most polished restaurateurs.

"Hello?" answered a man when I called.

"Is this Al Hamra?" I asked.

"Yes."

"Are you open on Sunday?"

"This is a restaurant."

"I know. Are you open on Sunday?"

They were.

The exchange didn't surprise me given my first visit to Al Hamra. I had arrived at around 7 p.m. on a weeknight and found the place empty except for a staff of four and two young women. The women didn't seem to work there, nor were they eating, and one of them, to put things bluntly, was really pissing me off. At first, she stood in the doorway pulling on a cigarette, filling the restaurant with smoke due to an unkind draft. Then she stepped inside and began a boomingly loud conversation with her friend. Since the only English word she used was "boyfriend," to me, her monologue sounded like this: "[Chat chat chat] boyfriend [chat chat chat] boyfriend. [Chat] boyfriend [chat chat] boyfriend. [Chat chat chat] boyfriend."

After 10 minutes, I'd heard enough about this boyfriend, so I was quite grateful when the woman's friend stood to leave.

"Bye bye, baby," exclaimed the woman. "I love you!"

OK, I figured, maybe she wasn't so bad.

The point of these anecdotes is that while Al Hamra has a few rough edges, it also has a certain unadorned charm. The ceiling fans wobble, dinner plates remain on the table until after you've finished dessert, and, on the night I invited my friends Richard, Roy, and Steve to dinner, we received no smiles, thank yous, or any of the other pleasantries that normally accompany sit-down meals. Given the lack of customers on my first visit, I'd been worried this 5-month-old eatery would close before I had a chance to review it. But, lo and behold, the place is now doing a brisk business: People must have realized that at Al Hamra you can enjoy intensely spiced, monstrously delectable feasts that, unless you're a truly ravenous soul, shouldn't set you back much more than $12 per person.

The place is clean, if a bit spare, its only remarkable features being the etched mirror along one wall and the tremendous metal skewers in the window. Those skewers are long enough to slay a dragon, but in this case they're used for roasting meat in a pair of tandoor ovens. Al Hamra serves no alcohol, but you can slake your thirst with a frothy plain lassi, a thick, sweet mango lassi, or a potent, milky Kashmiri masala tea tinged with cardamom and cloves. If these choices sound like Indian fare, they should -- Pakistan was part of India until 1947, which means you'll find a similar abundance of breads, rice, and slow-cooked curries infused with fiery, multispice garam masala blends.

If anything, the side orders need the most work. They include a thin, unmemorable lentil-based dal soup and a watery yogurt raita, but also a wickedly good, sweet-and-sour mango chutney and (the most interesting choice) the weirdly astringent achar, or Pakistani-style pickles. Here, mango, carrot, and green peppers marinate in oil and spices to produce a flavor that's difficult to describe. I compared it to biting a tree, while Roy said the taste reminded him of a furniture factory. Steve damn near jumped out of his skin when he tried it (needless to say, he didn't go back for a second helping), and Richard actually liked it. Take from that what you will.

As you order, your waiter will ask if you want bread. You do. Choices include wheaty, pan-fried chapati, whisper-light puffs of deep-fried poori, and thick, fluffy discs of fresh-baked nan that can be stuffed with onions, puréed potato, or righteously spicy ground lamb, or topped with a fine coating of cheese and spices. The vegetable pakora appetizer translates as a variety of deep-fried tidbits -- cauliflower, potatoes, eggplant, and balls of flour that taste exactly like beignets -- encased in a crisp, golden batter; it is accompanied by plastic squeeze bottles of fiery mint chutney and a delightful, zesty tamarind chutney whose texture is reminiscent of molasses.

Tandoori dishes fill the restaurant with a wonderful aroma as they arrive on an iron skillet amid a tangle of green bell peppers and onions. The bright red tandoori chicken comes in portions ranging from a humble leg to a whole bird, and is similar to what you'd find at a good Indian restaurant. The meat is crisp on the outside, juicy within, and touched with a hint of spice. One thing you won't find in Indian places is tandoori beef dishes such as the bihari kebab, a heap of lean, thin-sliced meat marinated in oil and spices until it takes on an almost surreal tenderness. It wasn't the best beef I'd ever had (I like mine juicier), but it was still a satisfying plate, and quite a deal for $5.50.

Al Hamra achieves its full potential with its curries. A waiter will ask you how spicy you like it; I tend to answer "very," which results in a level of heat that comes on slowly and leaves a sheen of sweat on the brow. The relatively mild chicken tikka masala pairs barbecued breast meat with a creamy, delicately sweet, entirely ambrosial orange sauce. Chicken makhani appears at first to be the same dish (it, too, comes with orange sauce), but the curry is suffused with fiery undertones. It's so potent, in fact, that a few spoonfuls could flavor an entire plate of rice.

The ghosht vindaloo curry pairs chunks of lamb and potato with a burning turmeric-stained yellow sauce. I'd order it again, but preferred the achar ghosht -- the same cuts of lamb served in a darker curry laced with roasted peppers and Pakistani pickles, which in this case added a pleasant piquancy. Vegetarian curries include mutter paneer -- peas and tender bits of cheese in a lightly vinegary sauce -- and bengan bharta, melting, smoky eggplant stewed with onions, tomatoes, and peas. My favorite dish thus far is aloo palak, a divinely airy purée of peas and spinach studded with chunks of potato, the whole suffused with a galaxy of spices and the sharp, nutty smack of ghee (Indian/Pakistani-style clarified butter).

The menu lists three of the usual Indian suspects for dessert -- gulab jamun (deep-fried cheese balls with rose water), kheer (rice-pistachio pudding), and kulfi (saffron ice cream) -- but on the night Richard and company joined me, our waiter said there was a kulfi special. (In other words, kulfi was the only thing available.) It was a disappointing way to finish. The ice cream arrived in plastic cups, and we tasted no saffron; the stuff was frozen so hard Barry Bonds could have knocked a portion halfway across the bay. But dessert isn't everything. I've been back a couple of times since and the operation has become more refined with each passing day. The smiles and thank yous are now forthcoming, and though I have yet to see gulab jamun on the premises, the kheer is a creamy, porridgelike wonder and a fine end to a marvelous meal.

About The Author

Greg Hugunin

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