"Are you guys from around here?" asked our hair-netted waiter/cashier. We had just finished telling him that everything we had eaten could have been a little bit spicier, and he was having trouble processing the information. "Most people want it less spicy," he said with a shrug.
Whether you like your food smugly spicy or not, there will be Indian and Pakistani dishes aplenty at Café Bahar to test the prepared palate. For sheer visual shock value, let me suggest starting with the South Indian Mysore masala dosa. Hanging off both sides of the serving plate, this roll of crisply fried fermented lentil and rice batter is easily as long as your forearm. It's stuffed with a fragrant potato mixture — and it makes you wonder how the heck do you eat this thing. Here's one way: cut it across the equator (that's where most of the filling is, and yes, it could have been even spicier), then either pick it up or go at it with a fork, redistributing the potato mix or not, as you see fit.
Having passed this test, the rest is a breeze. Gobi Manchurian, battered and fried cauliflower served with a sweet, spicy sauce with soy and tomato, is one of Bahar's Indo-Chinese recipes and it's easy to like. But so too is the only slightly more challenging goat soup. In this case, it's just spicy enough, tastes deeply herbal and would surely cure whatever ails you. (Most goat dishes are available only on weekends, we were told.) A soup of another sort, this one a comforting, lentil-based vegetable sambar, comes with the irresistible, fried lentil "doughnuts" that go by the name medhu vada. About the size of a golf ball, they're great dipped in either the peanut or tomato chutney that accompanies them — or in the sambar itself. In some parts of India, these might be part of a tiffin lunch made by women at home and delivered to working men by dabbawalas on bicycle. Check out The Lunch Box, a recent Indian movie on a relationship that develops when the elaborate system goes comically awry.
The most daunting aspect of the mirchi ka salan (spelled at Bahar as mirchikasalaan) is its name, spelling issues aside. It's billed as containing "long hot peppers," but here's the thing: long, yes, but it's just one. And not more like a mild Anaheim pepper. The curry with its sesame seed masala was unique and worth ordering. But even more distinctive is the chicken methi, a "preparation" flavored with fenugreek leaves. They lend a flavor not altogether unlike the Mexican epazote and once you identify these long leaves with slightly serrated edges, you'll begin to find them in many of Bahar's dishes. This is a good thing.
Most of Bahar's visual excitement comes from the over-the-top Bollywood music videos in constant play on a large TV in one corner of the joint. The space itself otherwise looks like a cafeteria that has been temporarily decorated for a prom. The buffet line, empty at night, was pushed to one side.
But all is forgiven when a dish as simple as chicken tikka kebab comes out as subtly spiced, tender and moist as does Bahar's. There's an entire section of the menu devoted to these tandoori-cooked skewers and if the marinated chicken is any indication, it might be well worth checking out the minced goat ("cooked to the level of your expectations") or the Awadi-region vegetarian version.
I will probably never learn, however, that biryanis usually fail to thrill. Yes, I know these sumptuous-sounding rice dishes are really all about the rice — and Bahar's is particularly good. So my suggestion is not to fall for the luxe model with (tiny and scant) shrimp but to go instead with the simplest (and cheapest) egg biriyani with vegetables. And then to pair it with, say, the Kadai chicken – ordered "spicy." I'm convinced that the kitchen staff does its best work when you order a dish the way they would eat it. Just be sure, between glugs of water, to tell them you're from around here.
10227 Ironside, (210) 558-8289, cafebaharusa.com
The Skinny: Indian and Pakistani cuisine using halal meats. The space is plain, the spicing anything but. There is a lunch time buffet.
Best bets: Mysore masala dosa, medhu vada, gobi Manchurian, methi chicken, chicken tikka kabab.
Hours: 11 am-3 pm, 5:30-10:30 pm Wed-Mon, closed Tuesday
Price range: $9.49-$14.99
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