Off O’Farrell Street, on Jones Street, in a slightly seedy block in San Francisco, there is a cluster of Indian and Pakistani restaurants. There are shadowy characters that hang around the footpaths there, disheveled in appearance, minding their own business, each preoccupied within his or her own bubble. Did not look the kind who always obeyed the letter of the law. There was a conference, and I was walking past with a distinguished colleague and good friend, when a familiar whiff--the kind of whiff you half expect to linger on a San Francisco street where the nation’s mandate on whiffs are not always obeyed. You smell that? I asked. My friend, who was going to receive a major award the next day, and had grown up always at the top of his class permeated with nothing but goodness and academic excellence, took a nose to the air and replied, smells like coriander. And indeed, in addition to this whiff, there was the smell of coriander, for we were walking past Shalimar, a hole in the wall Punjabi restaurant on Jones Street.
Later that night I came down for dinner to Shalimar with my friend K. Orders are taken from a soggy menu that looks like yesterday’s newsprint. We ordered haleem, naans, biryani and seekh kebab. Then we grabbed a couple of diet cokes from the freezer and sat down on rickety chairs at a laminated table. Paji aap baithiye, hum khana ley ayengey said the man, so we sat and waited. Haleem is generally not too common here: chicken that is made into a paste with lentils. There was brain fry (bheja fry), but good sense prevailed.
Authenticity is a hefty compliment that one does not wish to give away lightly, and authenticity does not necessarily equate to exceptional quality. The food at Shalimar is what one would get at an authentic truck stop in India. The food is hot and virile, made with muscular vigor. Served at the table by a man with a wrist of iron ringed with a stainless kada. A dishabille kitchen that looks as if it grew out of the pit of the earth. Rough hewn naans flop half hanging from the edge of the plate like a drunkard passed out. The biryani flung onto your plate with disdain, angry pieces of goat glaring from within the rice. The brown haleem sits, a viscous medieval mess plotting vengeance on your innards. The meat is fresh, the spice is in your face, and the seekh kebabs are moist on the inside. What more can one ask for on this temperate San Francisco evening where one man’s coriander is another man’s something else? Do not look for contrasting flavors, or pairing of textures, but here, twenty bucks will bring you a satisfying meal for two that a forty dollar meal of Savitri Amma’s Avial and assorted flavors from the “Chutneys and Savories” section at a dainty joint in Westchester will not.
This is the place that will remind you of all the greasy joints that you frequented in college, and paid for with wrinkled single notes that came out from the deep cotton folds of your pant pocket.