Photo by Jessica CalkinsHidden among the pho palaces and bánh mì bistros of Garden Grove's Little Saigon is Little Karachi. It's not big as far as immigrant enclaves go. Strewn within a three-block section of Brookhurst are four produce markets, a hairdressing salon and a video/music store. But it seems as if all the county's 2,600-plus Pakistanis jam these strip malls to purchase halal meats, pick up free copies of the Urdu Times, and groove to Lollywood's (Bollywood's Lahore-based rival) banging bhangra beats. They often end their ethnic excursion with a humble meal at Noorani Halal Tandoori Restaurant.
The eight-table eatery advertises itself as selling Pakistani and Indian cuisine, two food traditions that share a common history despite the acrimonious relationship of their respective countries. Lovers of Indian fare will be familiar with Noorani's large selections of tandoori meats, naan breads the size of hubcaps, crisp beef and veggie samosas, and curry anything.
The Indian selections are admirable—the sour minced-beef shish kebab in particular would make a desi nostalgic for the Punjab—but first-time Noorani patrons should indulge instead in the specialty of one of the county's few Pakistani restaurants. This means . . . organs!
Pakistani cuisine has an affinity for offal the way their Hindu neighbors enjoy chutney, and Noorani's cooks delight in bringing out the glory of gore. The grandest dish the restaurant offers is something called kata kat, chopped chunks of stir-fried lamb liver, kidney and heart. There's no disturbing organ tang in the kata kat because a multitone sauce consisting of spices ranging from ginger to hell-hot chiles subsumes the meats. This same lava also plays a crucial role with the magaz masala (beef brains), coloring them with a harsh red glow and enveloping them with its fire. The beef paya (cow's feet and tendons), meanwhile, is mildly peppery, tender and delicious. Noorani provides a platter of fresh cucumbers, nuclear onions and a surprisingly biting yogurt to accentuate the weirdly addicting harshness of organ taste.
Other Pakistani standards shine at Noorani. The sinewy goat of palak gosht retains a burnt sweetness amid accompanying spinach shreds, one of the few times I've actually found the vegetable appealing. Nehari—the beef shank stew that is Pakistan's national dish—comes singing with spices, although it really should taste a tad more fiery. All the biryani plates are symphonies of subtlety: slightly curried lamb, chicken or even shrimp buried under a hummock of aromatic basmati rice.
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A most intriguing selection is haleem, a sticky concoction of lentils, shredded wheat and beef so mashed it's not immediately discernable enmeshed in the goop. Topped with slabs of ginger and dried chiles, haleem is the tasty oatmeal Americans can only dream about.
What's really surprising about Noorani, however, is the abundance of vegetarian offerings. Pakistanis rival Argentines for their allegiance to carnivorous principles, but a look through Noorani's menu reveals items with which even the prickliest PETA punk could live. Dal tarka's heavy dosage of onions and tomatoes complements the thick wonder of properly cooked lentils. This meal is light on the stomach, not at all like the oily, spinach-and-potato-packed attack of aaloo palak. Bhandi, meanwhile, is Pakistani soul food: okra with chiles and tomatoes mixed into a yummy goo that tastes like a humid evening in the Mississippi delta.
Dessert might not seem necessary because of Noorani's mango lassi, a glutinous, sugary drink that tastes like melted orange sherbet and goes well with all the entrées. But a day at Noorani isn't done unless a dulcet delight is ordered. The menu lists no actual desserts. Instead, it cheerfully suggests that interested customers ask for the day's sweet special. It could be a bowl of thick kheer rice pudding, or maybe gulab jamun (two cottage-cheese balls cooked in warm cardamom syrup). Feel truly blessed if the dessert of the hour is kulfi, a slab of pistachio ice cream that makes the world's problems insignificant—at least for 10 minutes.
Noorani Halal Tandoori Restaurant, located at 14178 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove, is open daily, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (714) 636-1000. No alcohol. Dinner for two, $10-$20, food only. All major credit cards accepted.