Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Fiery, Intoxicating Spice Market of Pakistan! Al-Watan Halal Restaurant

I was first introduced to Al-Watan about two years ago, by a good Pakistani friend of mine. We had been talking about getting some good Pakistani food in L.A. when the suggestion for Al-Watan came up: They were popular amongst many in the Pakistani community, even catering big events and delivering consistently great food that reminded my friend of home.

With such high praise, we invited a bunch of friends and arrived on a fateful night, two years ago. What resulted was a culinary revelation; a flavor explosion and wonderful down-to-earth dishes that I would've loved to have had growing up. Since that day, I've been craving the food from Al-Watan. I finally had a chance for a return visit, hoping that my high expectations wouldn't cause disappointment. Luckily, that didn't happen. :)

Al-Watan Halal Restaurant is located on a quiet, older strip of Inglewood Avenue in Hawthorne. The worn exterior and simple tables inside reflect a humble origin of this restaurant of 18 years, and doesn't do justice to the food of Chef Mohammed Mumtaz. Chef Mumtaz has been learning about cooking and the restaurant business since he was a teenager in Pakistan, and he continued to train there, before traveling to Saudi Arabia to further hone his cooking skills and recipes. Finally, he moved to Los Angeles, and opened Al-Watan as Chef-Owner for the last 18 years.

We were offered the complimentary House Salad (instead of the more commonly-found bread service). It was a simple salad of Iceberg Lettuce and Cucumbers, but what made the dish was the fiery Salad Dressing of Yogurt, Chili and Cilantro, which was a precursor of things to come. (^_~)

Their Mix Tandoori (Beef and Chicken in Spices, cooked in a Clay Oven) arrived first. A bountiful, sizzling iron plate featuring a nice selection of 4 of their famous Tandoori dishes: Tandoori Chicken, Chicken Tikka, Seekh Kabob and Beef Boti Kabob.

Their Tandoori Chicken (Chicken Marinated in Spices, cooked in a Special Clay Oven with Mesquite) is just as delicious as our first visit: The slight tang from the Yogurt marinade, along with Turmeric, Cumin, Ginger notes, amongst many other spices brings a smile to my face. :) What makes Al-Watan's version so good is Chef Mumtaz's personal recipes: Truly fragrant, unique blends of spices that rise above the commonly-found versions of Tandoori Chicken.

The Chicken Tikka (Smoked Boneless Chicken Marinated in Fresh Spices and cooked in a Clay Oven), was just as good. Our waiter explained that this was essentially a boneless version (with easier-to-manage pieces) of the Tandoori Chicken, but I noted a slight difference in taste as well (but it was just as nice).

The Beef Boti Kabob (Marinated Slices of Beef in Spices, cooked in a Clay Oven) was the only average offering on this Mix Plate: A spicy, nicely-marinated preparation, that was undermined by the toughness of its well-done state.

But the highlight of this plate was the Seekh Kabob (Minced Beef mixed with Onion and Herbs, Roasted on Skewers). Chef Mumtaz freshly minces the Beef, and when combined with the bits of Onion, Coriander, multiple types of Chilies (which staggers the sensuous burn), Garam Masala and other spices, it adds up to this beautiful beefy aroma elevated far beyond what a normal, grilled slab of Beef would deliver. Delicious! :)

Their Garlic Naan (Bread stuffed with Garlic) serves as the basis for all the dishes today, a simple bread cooked in their Tandoor Clay Oven, fragrant from the freshly-cooked nature (made-to-order), and the bits of Garlic in each bite.

The next dish that arrived, however, was something I distinctly remembered being very fond of on my first visit two years ago: Haleem (Ground Lentil and Shredded Beef prepared in a "Very Special Way" (according to the menu :)). Visually, it looks like nothing more than a plate of refried beans perhaps. Breaking the surface of the Haleem reveals a smooth Puree of finely Shredded Beef mixed in with the smooth Lentils.

And then taking a bite reveals the subtlety and slow build up of spices and flavors that can ignite a romance with Food: The earthy, soft aroma of Wheat Grains and Lentil combine with Ginger, Garlic, Chili and Cilantro to invoke images of Autumn as I dab a piece of Garlic Naan Bread into the Haleem. This is even better than the first time I had it and makes me regret being away from this food for so long. The light simmering heat from the Chili provides a low, slow burn, like a lingering kiss. Simply beautiful.

The Tala Gosht (Piece of Beef cooked in Mild Spices) arrive next. The culinary opposite in many ways to the Haleem, this is the wild, explosive side of cooking, with each bite of the Tala Gosht bursting with freshly ground Black Peppercorn, Cilantro, Ginger and an immediate burning Chili Pepper of some sort. The heat hits you immediately, but not in an unpleasant way: It's enriching and invigorating, and transforms the flash-fried Beef into something you don't find every day.

After the wondrously distinct spicy dishes comes a bit of a respite in the form of their Chicken Tikka Karahi (Chicken Tikka cooked with Onions and Tomatoes in Spices). Referring to the type of cookware used to prepare this dish (the Karahi), the natural sweetness of the stewed Tomatoes and Onions bathe each morsel of the tender Chicken Tikka (which were first roasted in the Tandoor Clay Oven before being cooked together with the other ingredients here). Simply wonderful!

Besides the Haleem, the other dish I was most looking forward to trying again was their Goat Karahi (Goat stir fried with Onions and Tomatoes). On my first visit the pieces of Goat were tender chunks that blended into a beautiful Karahi preparation, but sadly, on this visit, the Goat was a bit undercooked, leading to tough chunks of meat. It was still very fresh and offered that wonderful, pungent meatiness that only comes with Goat, but a little bit longer in the Karahi would've softened the Goat a bit more, and made it the tender rendition I had experienced on my first visit.

The Goat Karahi Sauce, however was just as standout and addicting as the other dishes, with a different flavor dominated more by the Garam Masala, Onions and a Chili Spice edge than the previous Chicken Tikka Karahi.

Their Lamb Korma (Lamb cooked in a Mildly Spiced Gravy) felt a bit understated and underwhelming in the parade of spices we experienced beforehand. This was the mildest of the dishes, but still exhibiting some interesting spices, but in a creamy, lightly nutty way.

The Lamb Korma felt the most even-keeled of the dishes, with no one spice really dominating in this dish, with hints of Cumin, Garlic, Cloves, Coriander Seeds amongst other spices. Unfortunately, like the Goat Karahi before it, the Lamb was a bit tough and undercooked. The restaurant was completely packed when we went, so perhaps Chef Mumtaz rushed out the order, but a bit more cooking time would've really helped create the tenderness that the Lamb should've had.

The final savory dish was their Nehari (Spicy Beef Curry cooked with Special Spices). This had a stunning, immediate heat to it, probably the spiciest dish on the menu, but after that initial burn, it quickly dissipated.

This dish takes over 8 hours to prepare, but the Beef Shank's firmness seemed like the meat was added in after most of the cooking time was over. The Nehari's Sauce, however, was a culinary revelation: Besides the initial heat (it was mesmerizing in the way it danced over the tongue and mouth), the Onions, Ginger, Coriander worked with a bit of Tamarind (and what tasted like so many more spices than I could ever imagine) to come together in a harmonious love fest! :)

We finally cooled off with a dessert of Kheer (Rice Pudding). But what makes Chef Mumtaz's version of Kheer so wonderful is that it's just lightly sweet, with the cooling, relaxing Rice Pudding accented by fresh Cardamom that is absolutely arresting and so fragrant! A great way to end a great meal. :)

Service was good, with the waiters attentive to our needs. Dishes range in price from $4.99 - $14.99. We averaged about ~$21 per person (including tax and tip).

Al-Watan Halal Restaurant is an expedition and adventure into the spice markets of Pakistan. The fresh, fiery creations by Chef Mumtaz are exciting and brilliant, and the down-to-earth, humble setting makes it all the more enjoyable. Now if they could only get their Goat and Lamb dishes a bit more consistent (in terms of tenderness), this would become legendary. For now, it's merely great. (^_~) Recommended.

Rating: 8.0 (out of 10.0)

Al-Watan Halal Restaurant
13619 Inglewood Ave.
Hawthorne, CA 90250
Tel: (310) 644-6395

Hours: 7 Days A Week, 11:00 a.m. - 10:00 p.m.


Anonymous said...

God I love that restaurant. The nihari is to die for.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Noah,

Yah, it's simply great food! Can't wait to see your next country visit. :)

Anonymous said...

You also got to check out Al Noor down the street. Unlike Al Watan, Al noor has paneer (why Al Watan doesn't have paneer is beyond me). Anyway, next time you go to Al Watan check out the saag, it's the best i've had

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anon,

Thanks. :) Yah, I've been to check out Al Noor, but I wanted to finish up my thoughts on the first Pakistani experience I had (Al-Watan). And thanks for the tip on the Saag! Can't wait to try it on my next visit. :)

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