This Hole-in-the-Wall Life

Photo by Matt Otto

We all experience happy surprises—a $100 bill found on the ground, for instance, or flower petals spread across a bed by a lover, or your "lover" leaving a $100 bill on the nightstand.

Let me tell you about eating beef brain curry at Nizam's Nihari House.

I found this Pakistani dive a couple of weeks ago, in the Little Karachi section of Little Saigon—stopped in for lunch and found the narrow space empty, flagged down the friendly owner (he was next door at the Muslim market). He handed me a menu and brought out a pitcher of water.

Nizam's features the mainstays of the Pakistani diet—kebabs of lamb, fish and beef; goat, shrimp and chicken curries; many vegetarian selections; and an impressive roster of biryani, basmati rice moistened with impressive chunks of meats and veggies. I ordered beef samosas: furiously spiced, nicely fried and garnished with mint and onion chutneys. But my eyes quickly fixed on the specials, on the steaks and oatmeal-style beef-lentil-wheat stew called haleem.

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And on the beef brain curry.

The beef brain curry intrigued me. But I didn't want brain that day—maybe not any day. I wanted a straightforward beef curry and settled on the maghaz nihari, which Nizam's describes as "boneless beef curry with maghaz." Pakistani curries are oily, and this one shone like something smeared with Three Flowers Brilliantine. I poured the maghaz nihari onto a mound of basmati rice, and the grains immediately swelled with the spicy, viscous curry. I forked through the tender beef and improvised tacos with the paratha, a thick, greasy, potato-based bread similar to naan but better.

As I ate through the curry and beef, I also dug into a clumpy, sweet side—the maghaz. It tasted like a stir-fry of tofu and egg with the same consistency, and I was about to ask the owner to explain maghaz. But then I re-read the menu. It listed the beef brain curry as "maghaz masala." I'm fluent in menu Urdu, so I knew that "nihari" meant beef. So maghaz nihari . . . was beef-and-beef-brain curry.

What I had savored for 15 minutes suddenly turned bitter in my mouth, and I wanted to retch. What can I say? I'm American and thus have a knee-jerk aversion to some organ meats (like brain). Then the better angels of my soul—the Mexican angels—appeared, and I finished the rest of the beef brain curry. Seriously: yum.


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Nizam's Nihari House - Closed

14178 Brookhurst St.
Garden Grove, CA 92843


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