A recent addition to our growing fleet of Punjabi cabdriver joints is Lahore Karahi on O'Farrell Street. It was opened last month by, as it happens, a retired DeSoto driver. The menu will look familiar to anyone who's tried the other Pakistani-Indian places in the neighborhood, with a couple of twists. The food has been up and down on my visits, and at times it seems the folks here are still learning how to run a restaurant. But they are friendly and eager to please, and doing enough things right that I hope they figure it out.
The owner is counting on a handful of stir-fried dishes to help set his place apart from the pack. Naan 'n' Curry serves two of these, but otherwise they aren't common around here. They're named after the woklike pan they're made in, karahi in Urdu. Lamb, chicken or salmon is marinated in spices, then cooked quickly and served with a small amount of sauce -- as opposed to being simmered in premade curry sauces. In a slightly gimmicky touch, they come in a shiny miniature karahi. I'm not convinced they're going to put this restaurant on the map. I liked the karahi fish ($6.99), cubes of salmon with bright flavors of ginger, garlic, cumin, coriander and cayenne, though it could have used more chile heat. (Well, I liked it once; another time it was gloppy and over-salted.) The chicken version ($5.99) had muddy, indistinct flavors and too much oil.
I've had better luck with some of the more familiar dishes. Aloo palak methi ($3.99) is yellow potato in chopped spinach and fenugreek leaves, with subdued but well-balanced spicing. Dal bhuna ($3.99) is the meaty-textured chana dal, flavored with ginger and flecks of red chile and cilantro. Unless I've just been getting the gringo treatment, the house style for all these dishes is on the mild side. But, as cabbies might say, your mileage may vary.
Another way Lahore Karahi seems to be trying to distinguish itself is by offering more seafood than its competitors. Besides the karahi dish, there is fish cooked in the tandoor ($6.99), fat chunks of salmon marinated in ginger, garlic, cumin, coriander and cayenne. It comes out deep brown in places, like blackened fish, and mostly moist inside, though a couple of pieces were overdone when I had it. Jheenga masala ($8.99) is a generous portion of shrimp in a mellow orange sauce garnished with cilantro.
Naan ($1-$2.99) emerges from the tandoor slightly less well done than at most of the other Indian places, lightly browned with pillowy patches. Sometimes it's brushed with ghee, other times not. I've overheard the staff debating which way is better. Guess they haven't decided yet.
In fact many things here are still in flux. A few dishes have disappeared from the menu, others have been added. Not long after the restaurant opened, I ordered what I thought would be grilled fish (since replaced on the menu by tandoori fish). The owner pulled up a chair, sat down and with great enthusiasm described two ways he could cook it. Not quite grasping the difference, I hesitated. No problem, he said, he'd do it both ways, and did -- one in a pan, the other in the tandoor -- then later made a point of asking which I'd liked better and why. A couple of other times he's wandered over to my table, evidently not seen enough food on it, and comped me a dish of dal. Whatever the shortcomings of the place, the attitude is disarming.
There are just a couple of hints that this space was occupied for decades by the German Cook: a Dortmunder Kronen sign out front, a Bitburger sign (``Bitte ein Bit'') inside. One wall is covered with pictures from Lahore: the city's 16th century fort, Badshahi Mosque, the famous Shalimar Gardens (there is no ``Naan 'n' Curry Gardens,'' as far as I can tell).
612 O'Farrell St., San Francisco