Los Angeles is a city filled with obsessives. We are well-acquainted with the concept of the cult band, the cult movie, the cult bar and the cult coffeeshop.
But is there such a thing as a cult restaurant?
If there was such a thing, a prime example might be Zam Zam Market, the former Pakistani market and restaurant in Culver City that served grilled beef kebabs, chicken biryani and killer lamb curries to both the crowds leaving the nearby Culver mosque after Friday prayer service and those cult devotees who popped in on other days and crossed their fingers that the kitchen hadn't sold out of its daily allotment of lamb pulao.
Like many of the most rewarding food experiences, the one at Zam Zam sometimes tested your patience: The tables were wobbly, the walls bare, the utensils plastic — and you never could be sure what was on that day’s menu unless you called ahead. Nevertheless, when Zam Zam closed after 10 years of business last summer, after the building was sold to new owners, there was a great deal of gnashing of teeth. Whatever you thought of Zam Zam as an operation, there was little argument that the biryani — rustic, savory and teeming with mysterious aromatic spices — was the best in the city.
As owners Fozia and Fahim Siddiqui searched for a new space, the odyssey transpired in intermittent updates on Facebook. In December, a new home for Zam Zam Market was found in Hawthorne, on the same block as acclaimed tandoori restaurant Al Watan.
It might seem strange that Zam Zam chose to relocate essentially next door to a competing restaurant, but Fozia Siddiqui sees the adjacency as a positive. “Our food and their food is totally different,” she says. "They have a full menu, but we are smaller, so we have a few items."
Siddiqui transported the old market's shelves of Pakistani and British products — need a refill on sandalwood syrup, chicory water or Borwick’s baking powder? — into the new cavernous space, which was formerly a meat market. The kitchen, half-hidden from view, is where the magic happens, though it might not appear that way from its bare-bones appearance.
As with the Culver City location, the Hawthorne Zam Zam does brisk business after Friday prayers, attracting crowds from nearby Islamic mosques in Inglewood, Lawndale and Hawthorne. If you arrive on Fridays around 2 or 2:30 p.m., you will find a stunning rendition of the iconic Pakistani dish lamb pulao. By 3:30 p.m. it’s usually sold out — the white whale of Halal cooking.
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For those who can’t hunt down the Friday special, Zam Zam is open from Tuesday through Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. From Tuesday through Friday, you will find a menu of spice-intensive biryani made with large chunks of bone-in chicken, grilled kebabs flecked with herbs and a handful of curries — usually lamb but occasionally braised spinach or lentil. Naan is available, too, to soak it all up, and each order of rice comes with a container of what Siddiqui called “yogurt chutney,” an off-white sauce seasoned with cilantro, tomatillo, mint and jalapeños. We heartily recommend dumping it on top of everything. On weekends you’ll find halwa poori, a sweet nut curry that’s served with puffy flatbread, curried lentils and tart, crunchy pickles.
As with the previous iteration of Zam Zam, calling ahead is always advisable. But at least in the new space, Al Watan’s tandoori chicken is available as a consolation if Zam Zam's supplies run out.
Additional reporting and interviews by Zach Brooks.
Zam Zam Market, 13649 Inglewood Ave., Hawthorne; (310) 978-1927, facebook.com/ZamZamMarket2.