LAHORE TIKKA HOUSE (1365 Gerrard East, at Highfield, 416-406-1668) Complete meals for $15 per person, including all taxes, tip and a $3 glass of freshly squeezed sugar cane juice. Average main $8. Open Sunday to Thursday noon to 1 am and Friday and Saturday noon to 2 am. Unlicensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Lahore Tikka House is the east side's busiest summer patio scene.
Located on the edge of Gerrard East's Indiatown, this grungy former KFC explodes onto its surrounding parking lot once the weather allows. It becomes a billowy sari-tented outdoor ad hoc dining room big enough to seat over 200, complete with family-style picnic tables, plastic flora wrapped in fairy lights and a pedicab perfect for photo opportunities.
It's quite the operation. Customers, from local hipsters to extended suburban families, place their orders from the single-page menu at LTH's front counter. There, they're given a number and told to find a seat outside in one of the many tents. A pair of dispatchers watch where they head and, once the grub's up, send it with one of several runners dressed in purple T-shirts to the right spot.
One successfully locates the Troubled Balkan and me reclining on a chaise lounge, sipping plastic tumblers of frothy sugar cane juice ($2.99) that tastes like liquid lemon meringue pie straight from Lahore's curbside press.
He carries our steaming main aloft on a cast-iron skillet, a whole red snapper ($12.99) cooked in the tandoor, its already pink flesh made more crimson with red chili, its body slashed and partially deboned.
Next to the fire-seared fish - fins, tail 'n' all - we find a tangy tangle of turmeric-tinted caramelized onion, cubed ripe tomato and one very innocent-looking grilled green chili complete with seeds and stem lurking at the bottom of the plate.
Quite a depth charge!
Later, the Balkan claims that if he could harness the pepper's explosive after-effects, he'd have a vegetarian alternative to jet propulsion.
Most mains, like boti halal beef or chicken tikkas ($4.99/$5.99), get sided with an innocuous slaw - this visit it's cabbage, another time iceberg - plus two dips, one a thin, salty lassi-like dressing, the second a watery Swiss Chalet-type dunk with minimal firepower.
The clay tandoor oven situated in a lean-to just outside the main room also produces excellent lamb kabobs ($2.59 each) and three types of first-rate naan - plain ($1), butter-brushed ($1.25) or tossed with toasted sesame seeds ($1.50).
Complaining that Lahore's non-tandoor dishes are swimming in ghee is like griping about Vesta Lunch's frozen fries and canned gravy. Tradition demands it be that way. I skim off seven (!) tablespoons of the greasy stuff from an otherwise delicious takeout karahi lamb ($8.49), the stew's succulent marrow-rich bones alternating with tender boneless cubes of meat in sweet 'n' fiery tomato sauce
Though it gets the same clarified butter over-lubing, Lahore's home-style take on aloo gobi ($4.99), specified spicy, with al dente cauliflower and waxy lemon-scented spuds, is real meltdown material.
Pulverized spinach contrasts with firm yellow lentils in non-mushy palak daal ($5.95). But muttar paneer ($6.95) is even too much for this experienced epicure, consisting of an over-cooked combo of dry peas, chewy dehydrated cheese and another two or three of those heartburn-inducing chilies.
More like Cantonese fried rice than the silver-foil-and-sultana-topped northern Indian wedding dish most are more familiar with, Lahore's vegetable biryani ($8.99) sees chick peas, crunchy cauliflower and very shredded carrot mixed with moist, spice-charged basmati. And as the servers T-shirts insist, do try Lahore's tasty house-made almond kulfi ice cream on a chopstick ($2).
In winter, the 45-seat indoor space is augmented by several tricked-out construction-site trailers as Bollywood show tunes play over the tinny PA.
Obviously, Lahore Tikka House has outgrown its space, and owner Alnoor Sayanni knows it.
He opened the business in 1997 and was the first vendor to sell spice-rubbed barbecued corn on the cob on the subcontinent strip. Now he's building a new restaurant at the rear for his fast food business and an even larger two-storey space up front with over 300 seats and a second patio.
Business is obviously booming, but the intuitive restaurateur isn't planning on cashing in just yet.
"Life's too short to be all about money," reasons Sayanni.
He means it, too, having turned down offers to franchise from as far away as Texas.