Photo by Anne FishbeinAS MUCH AS I LIKE THE MORE REFINED SORT OF Indian cuisine, I find myself drawn these days to the brute glory of Pakistani cooking instead. Where some Indian curries can be as delicate as butterfly wings, Pakistani curries practically scream with flavor, not just chiles but big handfuls of cloves, cardamom and enough cumin to flavor your breath for days. Southern Indian cooking features rice-flour pancakes that are as thin and as crisp as the burnt sugar on a crème brûlée, and Pakistani cuisine whole-wheat parathas so thick and so saturated with butter that they could probably stop bullets. The Indian diet is largely vegetarian; I sometimes get the feeling that some Pakistanis would be happy if they could figure out a way to fashion rice, bread and carrots out of meat, so that they'd never have to put anything in their mouths that wasn't made out of cow, chicken or goat.
Among the newest Pakistani Muslim restaurants in town, and certainly among the best, is the strictly halal Al-Noor, a busy storefront in a Lawndale strip mall, a quick five minutes south of the airport and a straight shot from the 405. Like most Islamic restaurants, Al-Noor is fairly spare, decorated chiefly with great swaths of Arabic script and a travel poster or two, but there are tablecloths, and soft lighting, and silk roses encrusted with tears of plastic dew. Al-Noor is a nice place.
It is in a fairly rich restaurant neighborhood, across the street from a São Paulostyle fish restaurant located in a former hamburger stand (if you must eat moqueca in the South Bay, this is your place), a few blocks down from a pretty good teriyaki hut and a decent Madras-style Indian chicken restaurant, and a five-minute drive from the Peruvian restaurants of Lawndale. At noon, the crowd eating lunch can be as varied as any in the South Bay: Pakistani businessmen, Spanish-speaking mechanics and lassi-swilling white guys in carpenters' overalls, a tableful of chador-cloaked women nibbling on grilled kebabs a few feet away from a table of fish-eating surfer dudes -- all brought together by smoky, garlicky tandoor-barbecued chicken and great slabs of hot bread, a combination that seems to override every ethnic boundary in the world.
The chef once cooked at Bundoo Khan, a Pakistani restaurant in a Koreatown mini-mall around the corner from an apartment I used to live in, and where I probably stopped in once a week for kebabs and Islamic "hamburgers" before it burned down in the '92 riots, but the menu at Al-Noor is more classically Pakistani, a short document of stews, vegetables and tandoor-cooked meats.
The restaurant is locally famous for its version of nehari, which is more or less the Pakistani national dish, an intense, mahogany concoction of lamb shanks flavored with garlic, chiles and an immoderate amount of shredded fresh ginger, also with what seems like half the contents of a spice cabinet. Nehari can sometimes be a little thin, as genteel as a country French ragout, but the nehari here is cooked down to a steaming, creamy mass with the density of a dwarf star, bubbling and glistening with red-tinted oil, a stew substantial enough to fortify three hungry men after a day of hard farm labor or a stringent religious fast.
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The other stews at Al-Noor are wonderful too -- the brightly flavored brains simmered with curry, and the haleem, a deeply flavored beef stew thickened with the Middle Eastern equivalent of shredded wheat. But the stuff that draws the crowds, which often snake out the door on busy weekends, is the tandoor-cooked meats, boneless chunks of chicken tikka or hanks of ground beef roasted over superhot mesquite coals, bits of shaved meat in a powerfully sour marinade, chunks of lamb kebab served on sputtering-hot steel platters with blackened onions and fresh-baked, if slightly clumsy, garlic naan.
For a solid Pakistani dinner, Al-Noor is just about perfect. Unfortunately, it is just down the street from its only conceivable rival, the wonderful Al-Watan, which is a more basic halal Pakistani grill with unusually gifted tandoor chefs, fierce haleem and some of the best roast meats in town. The friendly rivalry between partisans of the two restaurants may be as pronounced as the one between Woody's followers and Phillip's fans in the Crenshaw-district barbecue stakes, but we all win. Al-Watan is where you'd take your best friend; Al-Noor is where you'd bring your mom.
15112 Inglewood Ave., Lawndale; (310) 675-4700. Open daily 11 a.m.10 p.m. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $12$20. No alcohol. Takeout. Lot parking. AE, MC, V. Recommended dishes: chicken tikka; nehari; haleem.