Sweat has stopped dripping perpetually from my pores, and recently, I actually wore a jacket. That in itself has created a good enough excuse to start cooking things like chicken soup and bolognese, but also, to seek out some heartier and less summer-friendly restaurant fare. To kick things off, I led a small group to what are probably the two most well regarded Pakistani restaurants in Los Angeles to find out who makes a better version of beef nihari–the thick and powerful Pakistani equivalent of beef stew (made from the shank). For those unfamiliar with the food of Pakistan, think Indian food, but more masculine. For those unfamiliar with Indian food, you probably need to get out of the house more.
The first version was tackled at Al-Watan, where the arrival of the nihari sent out a ginger-infused, swoon-inducing aroma that had everyone reaching for pieces of buttered naan to start dipping into the smooth, red gravy. The meat itself is tender enough that you probably don't even need teeth to eat it, and the flavors are layered, complex, spicy and have the tendency to cause shoulders to sink in relaxed submission. Washing it down with the not-too-tart yogurt beverage, salt lassi (also available in sweet and mango), makes for a wholly complete mouth experience.
At Al Noor, located just blocks away, we turned our attention to the second version, where it was ordered spicy and had a nice amount of heat, but not so much as to overwhelm. The gravy, with its beautifully reflective sheen, was slightly creamier, a tad more citric, and could be argued as better or worse than Al-Watan's, depending on personal preference. But the meat itself, sadly, was much drier and did not take in the flavors around it nearly as well. It also had the misfortune of being paired with an unusually (for them) sub-par paratha, which arrived at our table stiff and brittle. Had we not visited Al-Watan first, this nihari would still have been considered a real success, but comparison, in the end, begets disappointment, and disappointment, in this case, does not beget food fight victory. So this fall, your nihari desires seem better suited to be handled at Al-Watan.
Al-Watan, 13611 Inglewood Ave., Hawthorne, (310) 644-6395., Al Noor, 15112 Inglewood Ave., Lawndale, (310) 675-4700.
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