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In a small Tempe strip mall, frequented by those searching for a stiff drink or a tough tattoo, sits Curry Corner, one of a handful of Indo-Pakistani restaurants in the Valley.
Twenty-something Pakistani students from ASU seem to use it as a regular meet-up joint, smoking cigarettes outside until their chapli kabob, a wonderfully spicy ground-meat patty made with fresh tomato and green onion, is ready. Or they're sitting in the restaurant's small dining room, with its rust-colored walls and mismatched furniture, talking excitedly in Urdu with friends and checking text messages while consuming goat karahi (tender, garlic-laced goat atop a bed of onions and tomatoes) and palak paneer (a beautiful, creamy, dark green dish of spinach, Indian cottage cheese) and curry alongside large warm discs of fresh, oven-baked naan.
In the center of it all is Farah Khalid — owner, chef, server, matriarch, and general do-everything-er at Curry Corner. She is graceful and kind yet intense and driven, chatting with the regulars, patiently helping and educating newcomers about her rich, flavorful Indian and Pakistani fare, or hurrying about the kitchen, pointing at simmering pots, instructing a cook to add more garlic or throwing out a batch of curry because the color was off.
On my second and third visits to Curry Corner, Khalid remembered every single thing my dining companions and I had ordered previously. I had to formally meet this woman.
"For the first two or three years here," Khalid says, "the question I answered the most was, 'What's Pakistani food?'"
From Pakistan herself, Khalid came to the Valley in 1998 at the insistence of her brother. The two opened the Copper Kettle in Mesa (the name a nod to an Indian cooking vessel), and five years later, Khalid opened her own restaurant, Copper Kettle Express, in Tempe. She also helped another brother open ZamZam World Foods, a supermarket and halal eatery, in Phoenix.
After 10 years at her original Tempe location, Khalid was told that the bank was taking over her building and she would have to move.
"I was depressed," she says. "About 75 percent of my business is college kids. I thought, 'Where will they go for a good meal now?'"
They wouldn't have long to wait. Last November, Khalid found a new location on Apache Boulevard and decided to change the name of her restaurant to something most Westerners would understand: Curry Corner. And to make it more concise, she added: Indo-Pak Cuisine. That is, once the new signs arrive (at press time, the exterior sign at the new location still reads "Urban Eats").
Next to a hookah lounge (which Khalid owns as well), her unpretentious eatery features an open window to the kitchen, a few booths, each with a plug-in dining light perfect for hushed exchanges, and tables and chairs pushed together with the intention of a more raucous gathering of food and fun. Depending on who's in the kitchen, the dining room's TV could be showing an episode of Iron Chef America, a just-released American movie on DVD, or Hum TV, the Pakistani and Indian cable channel.
You may find some discrepancies between the glossy menu board and the photocopied take-out menus. And then there's the chalkboard listing the day's specials and the off-menu meals that Khalid cooks for regulars. I know: bummer. There may be Khalid creations you'll never get to taste.
"My food is exactly what would be served in Pakistani homes — I haven't changed a thing." Khalid says. "And each region of Pakistan has their own favorite dishes, so I cook a few things from each of them."
As is typical of Pakistani restaurants, meat plays a dominant role at Curry Corner. On most days, you'll find tandoori selections such as marinated wings heavy with ginger and garlic, minced meat kebabs alone or wrapped with fresh veggies in soft blankets of naan, and Behari kabobs, tender strips of beef marinated in yogurt and house seasonings. Weekends mean special dishes like beef karahi, its cubes of garlicky meat swimming among red dashes of fresh, chopped tomatoes, and green flecks of chilies and coriander leaves in a small metal pot you can't wait to take the lid off of, and malai boti, delivered sizzling and popping from the kitchen, its chunks of tender, boneless chicken having been marinated in a cream (malai)-based marinade with jalapeños and spices.
"I don't use a lot of spices; it's not necessary," Khalid says. "Ginger, garlic, and chili powder, cumin, and coriander — you can get wonderful flavors from these."
Along with Curry Corner's well-seasoned, marinated meat dishes, Khalid manages to conjure more than a few tasty vegetarian options, too. There are chutkhary (appetizers) such as crisp, triangular samosas, pastries filled with potatoes and peas; pakora, florets of veggies fried in spicy chick pea batter; and round patties of aloo tikki, lightly spiced patties made with boiled potatoes and various seasonings (reportedly, McDonald's in India has a McAloo tikki burger, but it's not an accurate portrayal). And with more than 10 main dishes to choose from, including split lentils (dal-lentil), green peas with homemade cheese (paneer masala), and the vegetarian alternative to meatballs, malai kofta, those going meatless would be best served starting with the kabli chana. Have chickpeas ever tasted this good? Cooked in desi ghee (clarified butter) and a blend of spices known as gara masala (with tamarind and coriander), this dish is earthy goodness, slightly saucy, with a mildly hot ending.
Given the number of dishes to choose from at Curry Corner, you'd think there'd be some overlap — you know, different main ingredients, same curry sauce. Not a chance. All of Khalid's curries are unique to each individual dish. The roasted chunks of chicken peeking up from the tikka masala are bathed in a creamy, rust-colored sauce that's rich in taste with a note of spiciness emerging at the end of each bite and disappearing before the next one. The Punjabi handi, with chicken, has a more garlicky taste, and the traditional curry with lamb, a rich red and served steaming like incense, has the distinct presence of ginger.
With a solid selection of tasty dishes (with not one priced over $9), it's easy to order up a few to try, or better yet, share with friends. And when it comes to desserts, don't pass on Khalid's halwa, a warm, sweet, creation of shredded carrots, almonds, and semolina, an ingredient used in breakfast cereals and which, I'm convinced, made this exotic treat taste like the Pakistani version of Cap'n Crunch.
Keeping prices low for her steady stream of locals means no designated servers to speak of, so service can be slow depending on the crowd. Relax. Khalid, her son, or one of her small team will take your order, cook your food, serve your food, and bus your table as quickly as they can. And with Khalid's high standards for quality, don't be disappointed if she won't serve you a dish — there's probably a good reason for it.
"If we don't have a fresh ingredient, I don't serve it," she says. "If the naan is a little burned or I don't like the color of a curry, I throw it out."
Chances are you'll meet Khalid when you visit Curry Corner — that is, unless she's left for her annual trip to Pakistan. There, she'll visit friends and family and tour neighborhood eateries looking for a new dish to bring back to her Tempe restaurant. One that will, for some, make the eyes wet with nostalgia or, for the rest of us, including yours truly, offer one more reason to stop by.