Berkeley is just getting its first taste of a kind of Pakistani restaurant that's already big across the bay. The success of bare-bones, kickass Shalimar in the Tenderloin inspired a number of remarkably similar competitors -- Pakwan, Punjab Kabob, and Naan 'n' Curry -- to open up shop within a block or two, creating a low-rent Indian restaurant district. Several of these restaurants have already expanded to other San Francisco neighborhoods, and now Naan 'n' Curry has brought its winning formula to Telegraph Avenue, at the heart of the tatty, bustling student strip. Naan 'n' Curry is perfect for students who want quick, cheap food with a bit of flair.
You can smell the tandoor ovens smoking away the moment you walk into the cavernous hall, decorated with the faux-finished remnants of the Mexican restaurant it once was. To order you wend your way through the tables, packed with Cal students, hipsters, and Indian families, up to the line at the cashier.
Here's the procedure: Grab a menu from the stack on the counter and pick out your orders while you wait in line. With three to five parties behind you, once you make it to the front, you'll have perhaps thirty seconds to ask questions and shout out the items you want. The cashier takes your money and gives you a numbered card, at which point you forage for your own plates, silverware, water carafes or sodas, and squeeze bottles of tamarind and cilantro chutneys. Two silver thermoses by the refrigerators contain free chai, and the shelf that has the napkins also displays takeout boxes and bags for the end of the meal.
Then comes the really hard part: Finding a seat requires the ruthlessness of a paparazzo or a Hollywood producer. Send the burliest member of your party out amid the chaos to hover over a table whose diners have almost finished their meal. Don't be polite -- if you don't claim it, someone else will. Once you've glowered at your marks and they've departed in fear, stake out your territory with your body or your belongings and push all the dirty plates to the edge of the table. Within ten minutes, a buser will come around to clear them and wipe off the food-spackled surfaces with a wet towel. If you're lucky, the table will be cleaned off before the food starts arriving.
Naan 'n' Curry's prices fit the Telegraph strip well. Although seafood entrées top the price list at $10, most of the meat entrées cost $5 or $6, and the vegetarian entrées even less. Like dim sum, the more people in your party, the less each person spends. It's not a bad idea to get one order of rice for every two or three people, along with one gigantic naan for every two people, unless they live for bread.
Though the Berkeley restaurant's menu is much larger than the Tenderloin original's, this one is stripped down for efficiency: curries, tandoori meats, breads. There are no appetizers and only a couple of desserts. As with many Indian and Pakistani diners, the restaurant offers a number of vegetarian preparations to which your choice of meat can be added: saag paneer can become saag gosht with a little lamb, or channa dal easily morphs into chicken cholay.
Unfortunately, though, Naan 'n' Curry Berkeley just can't deliver the quality of food that I've eaten at its tinier sister. A few dishes are good enough to make budget diners feel like they've stumbled onto a great bargain, but most are only as good as their price.
And the worst ones taste like they could have been squeezed out of a silver foil packet. The dull gray-green color of the saag paneer matched its flavor. The cashier claimed that the mixed vegetables contained "onions, carrots, okra, cauliflower, and many other kinds of vegetables." I could pick out a few distinct shapes on the plate, but it didn't matter because everything was stewed into a uniformly soft mess.
But the same long, long braising rendered all the meats moist, melted away their fat, and left them soft enough to pull apart with chunks of naan. We picked the meat out of a mess of chewy and aptly named bitter melon. Lamb vindaloo was coated in a deeply spiced sauce that resembled chipotle-fired red mole. The distinct and well balanced flavors of cumin, coriander, and turmeric stood out in the chicken cholay.
Tandoor-cooked meats, though, had a harder time. A tandoori chicken breast, flayed to cook quickly, dried out instead. The crimson spice paste that coated it, however, pulsed with bright flavor. The chunks of white chicken meat in the chicken tikka kabobs cooked more evenly, and the flesh underneath the rub was still a bit rosy; yet the lukewarm meat had obviously left the tandoor ten to twenty minutes before. A beef seekh kabob, spiced ground meat molded around a skewer into a freeform sausage, succeeded best.
Several other dishes turned out just right. Complexity isn't demanded of split-pea dal, but the yellow pulses, stewed just to the point where they begin to melt down while still retaining character, were seasoned with turmeric, garlic, and cumin to make a successfully simple dish. The real knockout was the prawn masala, a platter of juicy jumbo prawns stewed in a vibrant, light curry, red and acidic with tomatoes.
A couple of roasters work the tandoor ovens in full view of the diners. They work quickly, leaning skewers of kabobs and chicken breasts against the walls of one, then patting out huge rounds of dough onto what look like round terry-cloth pillows and stamping them onto the sides of the round, sunken oven, only to stick in a hook minutes later and pull out blistered, puffy flatbreads. The tandoor chef takes few rests, but because of the number of people coming through, naan rarely sits before it arrives at the table, which means that puffs of steam come out each time you pull off a chunk of the charred and crackly rounds. The chopped garlic abundantly brushed onto the garlic naan didn't cook enough to lose its raw taste, but the mashed potatoes stuffed into the potato kulcha were creamy and hot.
Naan 'n' Curry measures out its desserts into small plastic cups kept in the refrigerator case. On my second visit a sign at the door advertised, "We have kheer today!" so I tried a tiny tub of it. Cardamom-infused, chunky with freshly grated coconut and raisins, the rice pudding surpassed my expectations.
With its low prices, late-night hours, and prime location, Naan 'n' Curry isn't going to suffer for business anytime soon. The Berkeley restaurant opened just before the start of the school year, so it's likely that it got mobbed too soon to maintain the higher standards that the original restaurant sustains. Perhaps by the time the semester ends it will manage to raise its grade.
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