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Usmania's Crazy for Kahari

[Hole In the Wall] This Westminster spot brings Pakistani food to a county sorely needing it

The low-slung building on the corner of Olive and Westminster streets in Westminster has been a graveyard for restaurants over the past decade. Let's see if I remember them all—there was the Arab eatery, a Vietnamese vegan spot, a pho joint, and then there were the years when the building just stood there, abandoned. It's a horrible place for a restaurant—in a stretch of Westminster that's part industrial, part auto shops and lots, far away from the crowds of Little Saigon or even any people, period. But I'm confident its latest incarnation, as Usmania, will succeed, and not just because good Pakistani food in Orange County is as hard to find as an honest Republican.

When I entered its well-kept, tiny dining room for the first time, I immediately recognized the owner. He used to work at Noorani Hala Tandoori in Garden Grove, one of the county's longest-running Pakistani places. He still has the same kind manners, same big glasses and same magnificent helmet of hair stolen from a late-1960s Robert Redford matinee. And his food still features those big, bold flavors that made dining at Noorani such a revelation. Best of all is the goat karahi, a swamp of raw ginger and jalapeño slivers and whole onions cooked down into an oily stew that stains lips and fries tongues—electricity in a steaming platter. I maintain that the world's superior cultures eat goat, and eating this karahi reminds me why: the meat is tangy, soft, just a tad fatty and melts perfectly into the stew. Throw it on some rice, mix in tomato-heavy raita, and you'll forget saving some leftovers and just eat the resulting mound.

The rest of Usmania's menu is largely Pakistani, with a couple of northern Indian styles thrown in—tikka, tandoori, vindaloos—to entice non-Pakistanis. But stay with the Pakistani. Indulge in the paya, beef feet even spicier than the karahi. Dive into the nahari, spicier than the paya. Cool down with some mango juice, or end everything with the oversweet kheer, which will coat your stomach in much-needed sugars to fend off the spices. And as for the owner? He'll be there: on top of service, quiet and attentive, unassuming. When I asked him if he used to work at Noorani, he smiled, nodded his head, and went back into the kitchen to get the rest of my order. Greatness needs no words, only more ginger.

 
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