When walking up to Guddu de Karahi on a recent Saturday evening, I hoped that I’d be lucky. The Pakistani and Indian restaurant in the Sunset opened last fall to much fanfare from admirers of chef Guddu Haider’s previous Tenderloin restaurant, Lahore Karahi, which changed ownership in 2012. Both incarnations of the restaurant, past and present, share a cult-like following of both the chef’s legendary tandoori fish and equally notorious service flaws. Stories of 90-minute delays between ordering and eating, followed by painfully slow waits for the check, are not uncommon. Surprisingly, few voices on the internet seemed to mind the service; most sung praises in the name of smoky tikka masala and charred and chewy naan. I, of course, wanted only to bask in the glory of the food and skip the waiting part.
Perhaps scheduling my visit for a Saturday night wasn’t the best choice.
We walked in to a cacophonous room—the two men waiting and bussing tables were running around with urgency, clearing dishes and refilling water. The kitchen, staffed only by Haider, was churning out to-go orders. A small crowd of hungry diners was clustered at the door, and most of the tables were filled with patrons. There was little food in sight. In fact, I didn’t see a plate of food appear from the kitchen until long after we sat down. Clearly no one was going to be eating any time soon.
My companion and I buckled down for the long hall, gladly receiving plates, water, and silverware as they sporadically appeared. After what felt like an infinite wait, our food began to arrive.
Sizzling and smoky, the tandoori fish ($12.99) is an attention-grabber. It’s served on one of those cast-iron hotplates I first experienced topped with fajitas at so many anonymous Tex-Mex restaurants. But this fish is far better than those platters of dried chicken and peppers. The soft heat of the brilliantly fragrant tandoori spice lingers long after swallowing the flakes of moist white fish. Slivers of crisp onion and cabbage slowly soften and char on the hotplate, releasing their sweetness while retaining a pop of texture. Smoke from the platter infuses the rest of the food on the table. Dinner starts to feel a bit like a cookout—in a good way.
Equally riveting is Haider’s silky bengan bhartha ($7.50). It’s not nearly as picturesque as the fish, but its slapdash garnish of haphazardly strewn cilantro belies its depth of flavor. Every ounce of sweetness from the typically bitter nightshade is coaxed out slowly through what must have been gradual, careful roasting. Blended with tomatoes, cream, and countless spices, this velvety curry is the stuff of eggplant dreams.
Not all of the vegetarian dishes are quite as stunning. The matar paneer ($7.50) is a solid rendition of the cheese and pea curry. Its peas are bright and snappy, its cheese is properly squishy, and it was distinctively different in spice profile than the bengan bhartha. Still, there was nothing in Haider’s matar paneer that truly popped, and little else to distinguish it from any other restaurant’s version. The bowl sat, mostly ignored throughout the meal.
Perhaps we were just distracted by the Saag Gosht ($8.99). This rich curry of cubed lamb suspended in a spinach-laced gravy shouldn’t be missed. Haider braises the tender pieces of meat until they fall away at the mere tap of the fork. The thick gravy holds hints of the grassy green—the spinach hums together with the gentle funk of the meat in perfect harmony.
Haider’s rice is fine for piling onto your plate under spoonfuls of curry, but the naan selections are an even better choice for sopping up the bottom of the bowls. Burnished with smoky char and slicked with ghee, the tender naan is a reminder of the power of a hot tandoor and a little leavening. Onion kulcha ($2.50) was a favorite, stuffed full of sweet sautéed onions and bright cilantro leaves, but there are five more from which to choose.
Was the food worth testing the limits of my patience? Probably not for someone like me, who lives a long drive away from Guddu de Karahi. Yes, much of the meal was memorable (and the eggplant revelatory), but all of the food would have needed to be perfect for me to want to wait again.