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October 03, 2012

Zaidi's Grill

Beef Haleem Dominic Armato

UPDATE : Zaidi's Grill has closed

No matter how obsessed with food knowledge you may be, you can't know everything. Heck, if somebody like Jiro can spend an entire lifetime studying the tiniest little niche of one nation's cuisine and still feel like he hasn't learned it all, then what hope does anybody have of becoming even remotely well-informed? There are times when this drives me crazy -- when I look back over six and a half years of food blogging and feel like I still haven't learned a damn thing. And there are times when I remember that the ability to always experience foods for the first time is a gift.

Of course, Pakistani isn't even remotely obscure. And yet it's a cuisine with which I have precious little experience. So when I start hanging out with somebody who has an interest in food, a keen palate and some pretty deep knowledge about a cuisine that I lack, man, I just want to keep going to Pakistani restaurants, tasting as much as possible and absorbing whatever I can. So it was with my friend Omer and Zaidi's Grill, where I had the pleasure of chowing with him.

PakorasDominic Armato

Zaidi's Grill, in what is starting to seem like an odd trend, is another place run by an engineer -- biotech, in this case -- who changed careers five years ago for love of food. Since then, Syed Zaidi had been running a catering operation with his wife, Tabassum, until the right storefront became available, and they opened shop, a little spot in south Scottsdale with a handful of tables, a television playing Bollywood musical numbers, and a series of Puerto Rican landscapes, courtesy of the previous tenants. The food is inexpensive, it sometimes takes a little while to meander out of the kitchen, and it's so, so good. Pakoras, in my experience, are rarely so crisp, or so plentiful. They arrive, chaotic clumps of shredded vegetables the size of your fist, battered and fried to an almost shattering level of crispness, with a heady scent and heavily spiced flavor, turmeric and cumin and more. Fried vegetables that retain so little oil are hard to come by, and they remain tender and moist despite the fine texture. It's a little surprising, and then I remember they're made by an engineer, which seems appropriate somehow.

Afghani BotiDominic Armato

Grilled items, as the name suggests, make up a substantial chunk of the menu, and the ones I've tasted have ranged from solid to exceptional. Afghani Boti was a touch dry when I had it, and I wish the marinade had come through a bit more, but when this is the weak link you're in really good shape. Because then you have something like the Chicken Tikka, legs and thighs marinated in a deep, complex spice mix and grilled -- no, downright charred -- bringing this fabulous contrast between aggressive char and tender, juicy meat. This is why meat is put to fire. Another standout for me is the Beef Seekh Kabab, little more than seasoned ground meat seasoned and squished around long skewers for a turn on the grill, but sweet with onion and seasoned with with a beautifully balanced blend of spices that I find it far more compelling than what I'm accustomed to getting when ordering this dish.

Mixed GrillDominic Armato

Though the grilled items are delicious -- some of them extremely so -- I'm of the opinion that the curries are where Zaidi's really shines. It's only recently that I've been introduced to the joys of Haleem, "a big bowl of grain" as Omer put it. This is grain that's been pulverized and transmogrified and otherwise turned into a thick, heavily spiced sludge -- and, if possible, I use that word as a compliment -- that's intensely flavorful. Wheat, barley, lentils and some manner of meat are stewed for a very long time, such that they break down and turn into a thick, meaty porridge spiked with fresh chiles, ginger or cilantro to brighten it up. I've had Haleem that I've enjoyed more (I wish Z-Grill's were more consistent), but this was still mighty tasty even if isn't a strength.

Chicken QormaDominic Armato

I could save my favorite for last, but why be coy? The Chicken Qorma is a strength. Boy howdy, is it ever. My first inkling of what was in store came in the form of the scent, an intense, toasted fragrance laden with spices that hit like a shockwave while it was still four paces from the table. The second was the appearance, a thick, oily concoction that looked like a magical marriage of meat, spices, and lots and lots of time. The third was Omer's face, of Pakistani heritage, granite-jawed and usually stoic, suddenly twisted into a look that started as surprise and quickly melted into pleasure, as an experienced palate was taken aback by a Pakistani dish for the first time in a long time. Upon tasting, I've no doubt that I was at least as emotive as he was, because this stuff is completely mind-altering in its intensity. It's total spice overload, pushed right to the brink of being overpowering and left teetering on the edge, held back only by a kind of buttery richness that keeps it from being unbalanced. Strewn with whole spices and packed with tender meat, it's the kind of dish that makes me feel like I really need to be careful to save the word "explosive" for the dishes that most deserve it. A discussion of the dish with Syed revealed yet another indication that these folks have their hearts precisely in the right place. When Zaidi's first opened, the Chicken Qorma was made with bone-in pieces of chicken. After receiving some complaints, Syed switched to boneless chunks of meat. But not long thereafter, he switched back to bone-in. The reason? That's how it's meant to be. That's how it's best. That's how people need to experience it, even if they don't yet see the wisdom of that technique. I can only hope that their recent good press (thank you for that, New Times!) will make it easier for them to stand strong and continue to make these foods the way they know they're meant to be made.

Chicken KarahiDominic Armato

Though I hesitate to use the word "similar," the Chicken Karahi seems to come from the same place as the Qorma, but branches out in a different direction, replacing the Qorma's earthy, spicy intensity with a kind of easy, natural sweetness courtesy of tomatoes and some other vegetables. It's mellow only in comparison. This is still heady, complex stuff, but in a broader, less narrowly focused way. It's another fabulous dish. The Goat Paya, when I had it with a crowd of friends, was quickly dubbed "liquid goat," and that pretty much covers it right there. It's too bad I neglected to get a photo, because its appearance plays like a punchline, a small pile of almost naked bones sitting in a bowl, looking as though the meat had simply melted off of them and taken liquid form, ready to be spooned or sopped up by whatever method most convenient. When I'm in a debilitating accident and eating through a straw, this is what I'll be sending friends to retrieve for me.

Beef NihariDominic Armato

Beef Nihari is another dish that's relatively new to me, despite its iconic status within the pantheon of Pakistani cuisine, and it's one of those standards that makes me regret not discovering it sooner. Huge chunks of tender, stewed beef sit in what amounts to something of a beef gravy, though to use that word undersells it in all kinds of ways. What sets this apart from the other versions I've tried is the stunning, velvety texture of the sauce. I suggest this not to undersell its beautiful spicy, beefy flavor, but the feel of it is a silken richness that can only come from stewing bones and marrow for long periods of time. No thickening shortcuts here. For me, it's just the right amount of heat, possessing both an immediate sting and a lengthier, building burn without getting distracting. This is a seriously beautiful dish, a revelation to somebody who's relatively new to Pakistani, and one of the best treatments I've had of beef in a while.

KheerDominic Armato

And still there's more. I got but a fleeting taste of the Paneer Masala on one visit, too small to photograph or mentally dissect in detail, but enough to know that I wish I weren't sharing it. The naans are excellent, representing tender, crisp and charred all in one piece. And when it comes to sweets, though I'm highly inexperienced with Kheer -- this may have been my first -- I don't for a moment doubt those who have told me that sampling Zaidi's is starting at the top. It's a thick and creamy rice porridge, very sweet and scented with cinnamon and cloves, topped with toasted pistachios and shaved coconut. Between the almost custardy viscosity, playful aroma and textural impact of tender grains of rice and crunchy motes of toasted nut, it's yet another winner.

Zaidi's Grill is one of those places I just want to drag people to. Though the catering business is booming, it seems the restaurant is struggling a little to find its audience. Part of the issue might be a reportedly subpar lunchtime buffet (order off the menu), but more, I suspect, it's simply that being unwilling to compromise on the food can be risky. Scottsdale, much to its detriment, doesn't appear to be clamoring for liquid goat (yet). But that's all the more reason to make sure they succeed. These are great people, they're making fabulous food, and they're steadfastly making these dishes the best way they know how, without sacrificing quality for accessibility. I hope they're rewarded with the success they deserve, and based on what I've tried at Zaidi's, they deserve a lot of success.

Zaidi's Grill
1617 N. Granite Reef Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85257
Tue - Sun11:30 AM - 9 PM


I've lurked around your blog for years, but today I had to comment. I grew up in India and the mention of paya made me want to cry. My mum would make paya with chappatis. I never ate the meat (being a picky kid), but I love the sticky gravy. Too bad AZ is very far away from IA.

Oh dear, Karen!

I have no such childhood ties to this cuisine, and it makes ME weak in the knees... I can only imagine how you feel :-)

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