Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Alhamra Indian and Pakistani Restaurant
Reviewed Alhamra Indian and Pakistani Restaurant: Monday, May 30, 2011
I’ve been a devotee of Alhamra in the Mission for a long time now. Our city does have its fair share of Indian/Pakistani eateries, but this ranks among the best. The first time I went to Alhamra in the Mission I was a medical resident. I was operating on a shoestring budget and constantly sought out venues in my neighborhood where I could have a decent sit-down meal without having to go without electricity for a few days.
This non-descript restaurant in the Mission was a latecomer to my rotation — mostly because there were several other restaurants in the area with similar menus that always seemed to be more crowded. One fateful day, unwilling to bear the crowds of these spots, I wandered in, and my life was changed forever. Among my circle of friends, Alhamra quickly emerged as our favorite Indian/Pakistani eatery in the city. What I cannot understand is why this place does not get more attention. True, it could use some improvements with ambience, but what it lacks in ambiance it more than makes up for with sensational food.
So what makes it so good? First, it is true that my parents, accustomed to the heavily spiced cuisine of their motherland, put chili powder in my baby food. This meant that they wouldn’t have dumb down their cooking for their American-raised, french fry-loving son, so yes, I eventually found that french fries tasted better smothered with hot sauce. The end result of this child-rearing experiment is my insatiable drive to find incendiary cuisine. Anyone can make a dish spicy, but to make it spicy and flavorful is a real challenge.
So first and foremost, Alhamra is at the top of my list because they can deliver the spice. It took some time, but once the cooks finally recognized my tolerance levels were up to par, they released the fire. Now they spice my food without my having to ask. The chef makes his own hot sauce, which he reserves for “special” customers like me. Be warned it is not for the faint of palate.
But even for those of you who prefer milder flavors, this place offers an array of dishes that are excellent. In my opinion, they make the best chicken tikka masala (CTM) in the city (and one can find a CTM on nearly every block in San Francisco). Someone once told me that one should never order a biryani for less than $20. The complexity of the dish requires so much preparation that a venue with good biryani would have to charge high prices just to offset the labor requirements of the dish. Alhamra violates this rule. I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night with my mouth watering after dreaming about their succulent lamb and chicken biryani. But where they really shine is in their Tandoori cuisine: their Tandoori shrimp and fish are beyond description. I won’t even make the attempt.
The proprietors and his family at Alhamra have always been welcoming and hospitable. The owner welcomes me as “brother” when I eat there, a reflection of the fact that this really is a community-based restaurant serving a large extended family of devotees. Do yourself a favor next time you’ve got a craving for some down-home Indian/Pakistani cooking: buy yourself a six-pack or a bottle of wine, and head to Alhamra and order up a feast. Your belly, wallet, and companions will all be grateful.
Occupation: Implementation Project Manager
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Mandalay
Reviewed Alhamra Indian and Pakistani Restaurant: Tuesday, May 31, 2011
16th and Valencia is one of my favorite places to start a night out, so I was excited to try a new place. A friend and I popped in a little after 6:30pm on a Tuesday, and we were the only patrons. The restaurant is spacious and airy, and the familiar spicy smell of Indian dishes greeted us just before the manager, a stocky man in a backward baseball cap, gestured to us that we could choose our table. He brought us menus and a carafe of water (I love when restaurants do this, because I always feel dehydrated).
The atmosphere of the restaurant was relaxed when I was there. One of the employees was reviewing something on his laptop, the waiter had a hip propped up against the counter while he was waiting for us to order, and the cook was whistling while he went about making the food. There was a painted mural on the wall, and the space was clean. For a Tuesday evening, I enjoyed the vibe.
Since I’m a sucker for anything deep-fried, I had to try the vegetable pakora. They have a bit of a kick, which I enjoyed, but are very dry and otherwise lacked flavor. I had to soak them in the mint sauce on the table. The combo is pretty tasty, so I enjoyed it overall. We ordered our entrees next. I love chicken tikka masala (barbecue chicken in creamy, spicy sauce), so that was a given. We also tried the lamb roll kebab (ground lamb grilled on a stick) and added the sag paneer (spinach and cheese) to get a little something green in the mix.
For our drinks, we added mango lassis, which were delicious. It’s sort of a drinkable orange Creamsicle, and does the double duty of calming down the heat from the spicy dishes. The lamb roll, the tikka masala, and the sag paneer came to the table next, along with our naan and rice. The portions were smaller than I’d expected, but given that most menu items are below $10, I wasn’t disappointed (and I didn’t leave hungry).
I tried the sag paneer first. I found that the flavor included some spice, but didn’t go overboard on heat. My friend made the comment that the spinach tasted like it had been heated from having been frozen, rather than fresh spinach that had just been cooked down. I wasn’t a fan of the texture, but I found the flavor to be on par with sag paneer that I’ve had at other restaurants.
Next up was the chicken tikka masala. The chicken used was good quality, the meat was cooked well, and the sauce was a good flavor. The tikka masala sauce is creamy and didn’t have the copious oil pools that some masala dishes at other restaurants have. I probably could have drunk that sauce out of a tall glass. I enjoyed this the most out of all of the dishes I tried here.
The last item I tried was the lamb roll. It was a bit dry, but I enjoyed its spicy flavor. The dish came with a lime, and when adding that element to the mix, the dish tasted less like a generic lamb meatball and more like a savory Indian dish. I don’t know that I’d order it again, but I was glad I tried it.
Overall, I wouldn’t call this a destination restaurant (i.e. I’m not going out of my way just to eat here), but it offers solid Indian fare, and I’d definitely return if I’m in the area and craving tikka masala.
Location: San Mateo
Favorite Restaurant: Café Gibraltar
Reviewed Alhamra Indian and Pakistani Restaurant: Monday, May 30, 2011
We caught scent of the curry spices of Alhamra from 16th Street, a block and a half from where my wife’s parking karma led us to park. The restaurant is Spartan in setup and décor. A long rectangular space, Alhamra had the kitchen visible from the street. Tables lined either wall of the restaurant, one covered in a Persian or Indian themed mural, the other covered in mirrors. Prints decorated the top of the walls, one seem to depict a scene of Santorini, Greece.
The restaurant is inundated in smells of curry and spice. The menu is very simple but not lacking in choices. In order to get a broad feel of the kitchen, we decided to sample the Tandoori chicken thigh and leg, the garlic nan, onion nan, keema nan (lamb nan), an item off the daily specials, the chicken kofta (chicken meatballs in curry), aloo gobhi, and lamb korma curry. The flavored rice dish, chawal and two hot, spiced milk teas were also ordered to go with dinner.
With the very open kitchen in the restaurant, it is very easy to see that everything was freshly prepared to order. The nans were fresh from the oven, tender and fluffy with slightly crispy edges and bottom, and a steamy and hot stuffing. Tearing into the nans released a plume of steam and the unique scent of the stuffed ingredients. The onion nan was sweet and carried a soft onion flavor with each bite. The garlic nan was fragrant, and the garlicky sweetness was unmistakable. The keema nan was the most flavorfully interesting. The lamb in the nan as well flavored with spices, and the lamb was not overbearing in gaminess. The spice mixed in the ground lamb adds an interesting dimension to the flavor of the nan and worked wonderfully with the sweetness of the nan.
The Tandoori chicken was plump, juicy, and hot from the oven, and the Tandoori rub permeates the chicken with fragrant spice notes. Wrap a piece up with a nan of choice, and one has bite-sized deliciousness. The chicken was so delicious and tasty we ordered another one halfway through the dinner. The chicken kofta consisted of four golf ball sized chicken meatballs sitting in a generous pool of brown curry. The meatball was dense and a little dry (as chicken meatballs can tend to be), but carried great flavor from the herbs rolled into the meatballs and the flavorful and spicy curry it was sitting in. The curry sauce was complex and spicy, pairing off wonderfully with the rice and nan. The aloo gobhi was equally assertively flavored. The cauliflower and potatoes were cooked till fork tender, allowing it time to pick up the curry sauce it was cooked in, a curry sauce that added another dimension of flavor but did not mask the natural sweetness of the vegetables.
At this time, my wife and I were already quite full, but ordered a second order of Tandoori chicken. We have pretty much given up hope on the order of lamb korma curry since it still hasn’t been served. However, being as full as we were, we were happy that the lamb korma curry was absent and asked them to take the lamb korma curry off the final bill during the final reckoning. While the cost was being recalculated, my wife and I sat back and finished the spiced and sweetened hot milk tea that we had ordered with dinner. The tea, made rich by milk and exciting by the spices and sugar, was a wonderful way to finish this very good dinner.
The restaurant was rather empty while we were there (just us and two other tables), however, during dinner, the phone didn’t stop ringing with takeout orders and by the dinner’s end, the dining room was filling up with diners. The service was casual but prompt, and the food was prepared and served in a timely manner. My wife and I both agreed that if we were living in the Mission District or even in the surrounding areas, Alhamra would become a regular take-away place for us. The food is very solid, the flavors are assertive and rich, and the price is very fair. We would definitely come back to Alhamra for dinner.