If you can imagine some parallel universe where the Sbarro fast-food pizza chain came straight out of Punjab, you'd pretty much get Mirchi. On a recent afternoon a group of women sat around a table at the Fremont restaurant, as their kids seemed mesmerized by cricket highlights flashing across the restaurant's big-screen TV. Draped with dupatta headscarves, the women sipped mugs of chai masala and picked at the remains of chicken tikka pizza.
That's right: chicken tikka pizza.
Two-year-old Mirchi may be the East Bay's ultimate hyphenated restaurant, a chain-link identity that works out to Italian-American-Indo-Pakistani. But then, this is Irvington, a neighborhood where cultures converge like traffic at the intersections along Fremont Boulevard. Post-global Mirchi seems right at home in the strip mall it shares with a pho place, an African-American beauty parlor, and the Chinese Academy of Performing Arts.
What's remarkable about Mirchi's blended flavors is how comfortable they seem with each other. Take that chicken tikka pizza, spread with a creamy masala sauce that tastes far better than most Italian-American red sauces. On an aromatic base of cooked-down onion, ginger, and garlic, the canned tomatoes have mellowed, their flavor deepened, with a buttery quality from an addition of heavy cream. It supports a plush mat of melted mozzarella, green peppers, cubes of yogurt-and-garam-masala-marinated chicken tikka, and leaves of cilantro exuding a green, soapy fragrance. The aromas and textures are right, and the crust is perfect: rigid all the way to the middle, puffed and bready around a shiny rim flecked with tiny blisters.
It has a hint of ghostly poignancy, too. Lisa Ahmad, 33, was born Lisa Lucia, an Italian-American kid who grew up around the family restaurant, an Italian place on Mowry called Lucia's. Her grandfather Dick was a Bolognese with a talent for pizza making. In the early 1990s she got a degree from the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, and imagined a restaurant career far from Mowry Avenue. But when her grandfather died she found herself back at Lucia's.
It closed in 1999. By then she'd married one of the waiters, Khursheed Ahmad, who'd grown up in Punjab, a region that straddles the India-Pakistan border. She then became a caterer. By 2004, when she was ready to open her own restaurant in Fremont, she knew it would have to be at least partly Indo-Pakistani. "The demographic had changed since the days of Lucia's," she says. For Mirchi the word means "spicy" Ahmad grafted Indian and Pakistani flavors onto the Italian-American food she grew up with. And she tried to re-create the simple restaurant dishes she tasted on twice-yearly trips to Pakistan with her husband.
One thing she struggled to duplicate was her grandfather's pizza crust. "We lost track of the recipe book," Ahmad says. She called cooks who'd made the dough at Lucia's, following up leads that ended up stiff and lifeless in the stand mixer. One day she got a call from her grandmother in a dream, her late husband had told her where to find the lost pizza recipe. "He said, 'It's in my wallet,'" Ahmad says. It was true: Her grandmother found a tightly folded recipe wedged in one of its pockets. "It was just a gift from him," Ahmad says.
It's a gift she hasn't squandered. A pizza scattered with bits of seekh kebab proved to be just as good as the one with chicken tikka. Fine crumbles of ground, spiced lamb had a warm pungency thanks to masala, the blend of spices that perfumes all kinds of Indian and Pakistani dishes. When Mirchi opened two years ago, Ahmad blended her own, but customers said it didn't taste right. Now she uses a base of Shan garam masala powder, a popular Pakistani brand, and tweaks it with her own additions.
A palak paneer pizza, scattered with cubes of mild-tasting dry-curd cheese and leaves of baby spinach, was less interesting. Blistered in the oven's heat, the dried-out leaves were wimpy. They lacked the deep, swampy taste of stewed spinach, a main feature of the dish that inspired it.
Mirchi seems quite happy to exist as a kind of halal diner (halal is Islam's equivalent of kosher). Besides pizza, there are a few sturdy entrées and pastas, no-nonsense starters, and Pakistani-style Chinese stir-fries. Sandwiches, too. The Punjabi chicken burger contained a seared patty of ground chicken that breathed the cumin-and-coriander whiff of masala. The bun had a smear of ketchup and mayo, and came with a pile of freezer fries dusted with Parmesan and a little drift of masala. The coleslaw became a condiment as refreshing and creamy as raita: shredded cabbage, the odd toasted peanut, and a thick coating of cilantro-flecked yogurt. Nothing in the sandwich column is any fancier than, say, a hoagie. But the spicing goes way beyond honey mustard and pepper jack.
That's true of the Lahori burger, a thick disc of crumbly ground beef spiked with onions, ginger, chiles, and the ubiquitous masala. The Sheezan club is something Ahmad tasted in Pakistan, a specialty of the Sheezan restaurant chain. Think of it as a halal BLT: three layers of white-bread toast plastered with mayo, lettuce, tomato, and a stiff-yolked fried egg. And there's a layer of flattened chicken tikka, whose seared edges and masala spices have all the appeal of a bacon simulacrum. We loved it, even as we found ourselves leaving much of the dry, cellulose-textured toast on the plate. We loved the omelette sandwich, too. The filling was soft and frittata-like, flavored with bits of tomato, onion, and the whiskery fibers of grated ginger.
The sauce for gobi Manchurian (available either as a starter or an entrée) is a transplant with a vividness that's pretty much electric. It's a blend of ketchup, malt vinegar, and black pepper tart, sweet, and oddly fruity that brightens up fried, batter-coated hunks of cauliflower. With all the masala in the food here, tikka-spiced chicken wings are surprisingly unspiced. But their sauce, a mixture of mint chutney and house-made ranch, seemed downright inspired.
I can't say the same about Mirchi's homestyle stir-fries. Mango shrimp were embedded in a thick yellow sauce sweet with puréed fruit. Ginger beef was sweet, too. Both came with big piles of fluffy basmati rice. Save your sweet tooth for the house-made ginger-lime coconut cake. It's a homey slab shedding wisps of dried coconut, oozing tart lime curd. Sure, it's clunky, chilly from the refrigerated pastry case, and probably too big. But Mirchi is not exactly about refinement. It's about folding vivid tastes into otherwise perfectly ordinary food.