As food can so often do, the North Indian and Pakistani dishes at Shalimar Indian Restaurant open a delicious window into a culture halfway around the world.
Named for the centuries-old Persian gardens in Lahore, Pakistan, Shalimar was opened three years ago by Aasim Sajjad and his family. Located on the bottom floor of an unassuming building on Broad Street, its casual atmosphere belies the sophisticated flavors of the cuisine.
When you step inside, you’ll be greeted by the friendly staff as well as the rich aromas of the authentic regional fare. To further set the mood, there’s a continual loop of Bollywood films running on the television above the bar, and the Shalimar women are robed in elegant Indian attire.
“We invite you to be our guests,” Sajjad said. “We want to welcome you as though you were coming to our home.”
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Sajjad emigrated from India in 1993, joining family in San Luis Obispo. Like many teenagers, he got an entry-level job at a fast-food place, Jack in the Box. Soon, he started moving up the ladder, eventually into the corporate ranks of the company.
A corporate rank meant more time away from home, however, so he asked, “ ‘What can I do for myself and my family here?’ ” Sajjad said. He had never given any thought to opening a restaurant, but “the opportunity just came up” when he happened upon a vacant former Indian restaurant on Broad Street.
To develop the dishes for Shalimar, Sajjad enlisted the help of his mother and two chefs from an Indian restaurant in Sacramento that he’d discovered during his corporate travels. The menu showcases the flavors of North India and Pakistan, regions whose geographic borders are delineated, but which “essentially share the same cuisine,” said Sajjad.
“There are a lot of vegetables and curries (as in the spice blend, not like the coconut-based curry sauces of Thai cuisine) — you’ll always find those spices like cardamom, cumin, cinnamon and turmeric.” This is in contrast to the food of South India, which emphasizes “lentils and barbecued meats, and is spicier, hotter,” though many of Shalimar’s dishes can also be made more fiery upon request.
If you’re not familiar with this type of cuisine, Sajjad and the staff are always happy to answer questions, but he suggested starting with the restaurant’s buffet. Served every day for lunch, Monday dinner and Sunday brunch, the well-labeled assortment “always includes a couple of chicken and several vegetarian/vegan dishes,” said Sajjad. (To accommodate both Hindu and Muslim religions, there’s no beef or pork.)
Among the typical offerings you may already be familiar with are fragrant basmati rice, clay oven-baked tandoori chicken, and chicken tikka masala — boneless chicken marinated in yogurt and cooked in a creamy, tomatoey sauce. Other items well worth trying are mutter aloo (a vegan dish with potatoes and peas), palak paneer (puréed spinach cooked with a housemade cheese akin to ricotta), and the crunchy vegetable pakora (batter-encrusted vegetables much like fritters).
Of course, guests are always welcome to order off the menu as well. Favorites include a chicken vindaloo with potatoes and layers of subtle flavors, any of the fried rice dishes such as lamb biryani, or a spicy cabbage mutter with green peas and curry.
Shalimar also offers several freshly baked varieties of naan, a chewy flatbread that’s a staple of this cuisine. It’s traditional to use the bread to eat with, just as you would a spoon or even a tortilla — and it’s also a great way to make sure you get every last bit of flavorful sauce.