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Photo by Tenaya HillsIf you walk past Ali Baba's Kitchen, you'll probably think the owners of this Pakistani food stand, wedged between the butcher and chutney aisle in Al-Madinah Market, don't care about attracting customers. The only tables are outside in a grimy concrete pathway next to a storm channel, where seagulls jostle with flies for scraps from an open garbage can. Inside, the wait time can extend into the double digits, and customers must share standing space with Al-Madinah's sole checkout line. Sometimes, around noon, Ali Baba's simply shuts down. "Yeah, um, they'll be back in about half an hour," a young man will tell dejected customers while flirting in Urdu on his cell phone.
So wait. Walk around Al-Madinah's choked aisles and pick up a six-pack of the creamy soda Pakola. Wait for the sizzle of meat, the thud of an opened oven door that means Ali Baba's is operating anew. Glimpse the grilled, fragrant contents inside. Laugh—who cares about petty inconveniences when you've just completed another successful quest for wonderful grub?
Although Ali Baba's prepares decent versions of subcontinent standards such as chicken tikka and tandoori and an epic chicken biryani that's more rice than fowl, concentrate on the Pakistani specialties. They prepare three different types of kebabs here—chapli, a beef patty stuffed with pomegranate seeds, lentils, cloves and jalapeño scrapes; boti, similar to the Middle Eastern shish kebab in their gnarled succulence; and the rare-'round-here bihari kebab, skewers of tender beef fillet shiny with a smoky, fiery sauce that nudges taste buds with the slightest hint of fruit. The Ali Baba's dry-erase board also advertises chicken curry, but it's really the notorious chicken kahari—think chicken bobbing in ginger-and-chile-spiked cooking oil. This dish, while filling and delicious, isn't for everyone: my stomach can handle a shot of Tapatío, but even I must call it an eating day after chowing through the chicken kahari's emulation of lava.
Since Ali Baba's is more takeout stand than sit-down eatery, you'll likely rub shoulders with the faithful from the nearby Islamic Center of Orange County, the county's largest mosque. They carry dozens of Styrofoam trays out, but they'll also lug out what seems like pillowcases but is actually Afghan naan. This isn't the naan or pita of a thousand tired Indian buffets—Ali Baba's Afghan naan is a little less than two feet in length, dimpled, soft and sweet, about the thickness of a Bic, and easily feeds four. Every couple of minutes, a slight young woman with Barry Bonds forearms lifts out an Afghan naan with a paddle and allows it to cool. Wait. Soon, you'll enjoy one of the great deals in the county for $1.25.
ALI BABA'S KITCHEN, LOCATED INSIDE AL-MADINAH MARKET, 14282 BROOKHURST AVE., STE. 1, GARDEN GROVE, (714) 531-2000.