If you are curious about the bright red liquid served in a dispenser next to the daily buffet at Zaidi's Grill, Syed Zaidi will insist you try a cup. And before the first taste of the cold, sugary, syrupy beverage touches your tongue with its exotic-flower flavor, Syed will have put its bottle of origin down in front of you. It is Rooh Afza, a concentrated drink that has been translated as "refresher of the soul" and a way to break the Ramadan fast for Muslims during the holy month.
"It is the summer drink of Pakistan," Syed tells me. "Very popular."
You can learn a lot about Pakistani culture and its cuisine from Syed Zaidi and his wife of 32 years, Tabassum — and the odds are good you'll eat up every bit of it. At their nine-month-old Pakistani restaurant, Zaidi's Grill, the two serve classic dishes made from family recipes and memories of meals in their hometown of Karachi. And nary a detail is missed in the process, from the thin sticks of ginger on curries — practically tripping over themselves with flavor and packed with enough chiles, cardamom, cloves, and cumin to fill a few spice racks — to the meat platters' sliced onions, jalapeños, and mint leaves that leave your tongue tingling and stinging at the same time.
Syed calls the couple's authentic culinary style "cooking from the grass roots." It's an approach Zaidi's customers — Pakistanis, Indians, and a few curious Anglos — come together to savor at the sparse strip-mall eatery in a part of Scottsdale the Scottsdale scene forgot about. Most come for lunch, some for dinner, and those-in-the-know for a special weekend brunch of halwa puri. This hot meal features crunchy bread called poori, a sweet and creamy cereal-like dish of sooji halwa, and spicy potato and chickpea curries. After a few bites, it may have you swearing off bacon and eggs for good.
The Zaidis weren't always restaurant owners. For years, the two worked in corporate gigs until they could stand it no longer. In 2007, they started a catering business specializing in Pakistani cuisine. Late last year, Tabassum tells me, Syed "surprised" her with the restaurant upon her return from a trip to Karachi.
Now, the two split the cooking duties for both the restaurant and their catering business. Syed takes charge of the grilled meats, Tabassum the veggie dishes, with the curries divided between them. Most dishes are exceptional, others merely satisfying, and all but one are under $10. Which makes Zaidi's Grill near perfect for a "grass roots" Pakistani and Indian meal.
You could start with four triangular deep-fried samosas, with thick, golden skins that give way to a spiced potato filling. But a better bet is the pakoras. They are wonderfully imperfect — strands of spinach and jalapeños dipped in a spicy batter, deep-fried, and served as a tangled, crunch-worthy veggie web with a spirited bite. Served alongside refreshing mint chutney, pakoras easily could be served as an addictive snack in any sports bar without so much as the bat of an eye.
Though the Indian diet is largely vegetarian, Pakistanis enjoy their meat — in particular, cow, chicken, and goat — and Zaidi's menu, despite being small, has lots of it.
For $17, carnivores can sample an exotic mixed grill of well-seasoned kebabs of beef and minced beef with an unusual soft texture, better chicken tikka (marinated chicken cutlets), and a stellar chicken boti. Featuring two perfectly charred, spicy, and tender chunks of marinated boneless meat, it is, like the Afghani boti marinated in green spices, exceptional enough to be ordered as its own plate (and for almost half the price of the mixed grill).
And if you prefer your meaty meal in hand-held form, you'll want one of Zaidi's wraps. Specifically, the slightly spicy beef boti with lettuce, onions, and minty chutney wrapped in parata, whose thinner texture, Syed tells me, is better with grilled meats than naan (which is better for scooping) and closer to the Pakistani street food staple.
More memorable than the grilled meats are the curries. And if Zaidi's becomes famous for one of them, it most likely will be the chicken qorma.
Don't be put off by the bones in the bone-in chicken. Stewed together for hours with large handfuls of spices, they are partially responsible for making this rugged concoction so delectable. The rest of the credit goes to its rich gravy, which is lusciously intense, and packed with enough cloves, cardamom, and cinnamon in its mix of spices to camp out in your mouth for hours.
Other curries are wonderful as well.
Haleem, a specialty in Karachi, is made with chunks of beef simmered with barley, lentils, and spices and sprinkled with sticks of fresh ginger, crispy fried onions, and cilantro. Constant stirring makes the texture of the stew almost paste-like, but its taste is deliciously savory and spicy all the same. Even better is the Pakistani national dish of beef nihari, a seductively aromatic, burnished brown creation of tender beef shank with garlic, chilies, and shredded ginger. Glistening with oil and with a bold beefy flavor bright with spice, it's substantial enough to get you through one meal, and maybe even the next. Lastly, there's the goat karahi, more or less the Pakistani version of a late-night meal. Served as a pile of chunky pieces of meat coated in a clingy stew of sweet tomatoes and spicy green chilies, it's first-rate enough to be eaten at any time of day.
Veggie dishes fall into Tabassum's territory, and you could start and stop at two of them: a creamy and ginger-heavy dish of golden paneer masala made with cubes of Indian cheese and the lentil-heavy daal. A common side dish with meals in Pakistan, this simple, protein-packed creation can be made in several varieties, two of which I tasted at Zaidi's: a lightly seasoned and decidedly un-stew-like creation Tabassum calls a "dry daal," topped with fried onions, and a spicier, soupier version equally enjoyable.
After dinner, don't miss a small bowl of kheer, a Pakistani and Indian rice pudding. Creamy, lumpy, and flavored with generous amounts of cardamom, it comes topped with ground pistachios and slivers of almonds for a seasoned, sweet, and nutty flavor. It's best paired with an order of poori parata. The light and flaky bread is perfect for scooping up bites and becomes almost pastry-like in the process.
Like its strip-mall storefront, Zaidi's small interior is plain — a scattering of tables and chairs, a few hints of décor, and a TV that, when it's on, sometimes plays Indian music videos a bit too loud — but the hospitality of Syed and Tabassum makes the experience a pleasant one. As the only two employees of their restaurant, service can be slow if the place is busy, but one of them always has time to explain dishes, aid first-timers in selecting a new favorite, and to stop back at your table to ask how the food is tasting.
Your answer, like mine, will most likely be, "Delicious."