IQBAL KEBAB & SWEET CENTRE (2 Thorncliffe Park, unit 17, at Overlea, 416-425-7866) Complete meals for $18 per person ($12 at lunch), including all taxes and a mango lassi. Average main: $8. Open Monday to Thursday 11:30 am to 10:30 pm, Friday 11:30 am to 11 pm, Saturday 8:30 am to 11 pm, Sunday 8:30 am to 10:30 pm. Unlicensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Iqbal Kebab & Sweet Centre in East York looks awfully bleak from the street. It's hidden away behind a Tim Hortons at the end of a cul de sac, in a dreary strip mall under humming hydro towers. But this family-style fast-food Pakistani restaurant's drab appearance conceals a wealth of culinary discovery inside.
Once past the parking-lot patio, foodies will find a McDonald's-style set-up in an industrial unit painted in geometric pale pastels and equipped with generic wrought iron café chairs, blond plywood tables and unupholstered banquettes illuminated by halogen spot lighting.
A pair of curtained booths are available for those who don't wish to be seen eating in public, but most of the young crowd here this Saturday noon happily socialize while eating french fries ($1.95) and drinking cans of Diet Coke ($1). Most of the menu posted over the takeout counter sounds familiar, too (chickens tikka and butter, both $ 7.95), though some items are definitely new to me.
Pakistani food has a lot in common with the Moghul cuisine of northern India - tandoor-fired meats, incendiary curries, syrup-soaked sweets - but there are also differences. Most notably, Muslim Pakistanis eat beef, unlike their Hindu neighbours, and generally use bread instead of rice with everything. And Pakistani food is less richly sauced than the stuff found in North American Indian eateries.
But Iqbal adds a second culinary twist to its Punjabi comfort food. Since owner Aszal Meghji grew up in Nairobi after his family emigrated there from Pakistan, many of his restaurant's dishes, like those at New Bilan on Dundas East, include unique African accents.
A starter called Mogo ($3.50) sees a dozen thick deep-fried lengths of starchy cassava sided with a soupy tamarind dip. Shakers of salt and red cayenne pepper and a second dip of cardamom-dusted yogurt add a little kick, but at first bite this Mogo ain't got its mojo working.
Give it a second chance. Once the cassava's golden outer crust has been broken, the second dunk turns the previously bland veggie into the perfect medium for a collision of sweet, sour, salt and fire. Puff-pastry samosas (80 cents each) come two ways, stuffed with either finely minced ground beef and coriander or firm potato 'n' garden peas tossed with nigella seeds. Both positively explode when given the same tamarind-yogurt treatment.
Pyrophobes should steer clear of Chili Chicken ($7.95), a dizzyingly addictive fricassee of deboned and skinless chicken leg and thigh simmered in a fiery red tomato sauce glistening with ghee. Sweet caramelized onion, flecks of red pepper and long lengths of unseeded mid-strength green chilies add extra firepower. The masala's sly sweetness is underlined with a saltiness that won't become obvious until the body demands rehydration about six hours later.
Mixed Grilled Platter ($16.95) offers carnivores a taste of Iqbal's tandoor oven. All marinated in yogurt, lemon and garlic and ginger pastes, two tasty lamb chops join cubes of tender tandoori chicken - dubbed Chicken Boti here - and similarly spiced chunks of Miskaki beef alongside a pair of roughly formed ground beef kabobs. Like most of the mains, it comes with an ordinary iceberg salad heavy on the Spanish onion, doused with yogurt dressing.
Vegetarians will have to make do with chaana masala ($4.50) and vegetable curry ($4.95), two of the few strictly veggie items (and very pedestrian to these buds) on Iqbal's card. But don't miss the veggie version of biryani ($5.95), a stripped-down Pakistani rendition of the popular Indian party dish, redolent of cinnamon and cloves. Though plastic forks are provided along with help-yourself pitchers of tap water, naan is the utensil of choice. Not only does it act as a scoop, but it counters most of the heat, too.
Naan is not as puffy as the flatbreads found in Indian restaurants. The only difference I can discern between Iqbal's plain naan ($1.25) and garlic naan ($1.95) is the addition of garlic salt. Both sliced-potato-topped Aloo Naan ($3.50) and minced beef Kheema Naan ($3.95) would be called pita pizza in most Middle Eastern take-aways, while mango lassi ($2.75) comes closer to a food-court milkshake than a fizzy yogurt quencher.
Iqbal's menu also includes a small section of traditional Pakistani breakfast dishes. Though it looks like pablum, Haleem is anything but - an invigorating slow-cooked beef, barley and lentil stew garnished with a julienne of raw ginger.
Taking even longer to cook, Paya features goat trotter (!) so tender the delicious meat falls from the bone almost by looking at it. Its gelatinous, cholesterol-clogging gravy is known to aficionados as Heart Attack on a Plate. And after polishing off a plate of Nihari (all $7.50), another hellishly spiced kick-starter stew of disintegrated beef shin, knuckle and marrow, my hair goes limp.
Now, that's what I call hot.