Zam Zam Market was once a Culver City staple.
Long a favorite among the local Muslim community, it eventually attracted a cult following of non-Muslim food obsessives drawn by biryani and some of the best Pakistani cuisine in Los Angeles. The appeal was large enough to overcome the restaurant's irregular hours and other quirks, including a menu that was inconsistent from day to day and a kitchen that routinely ran out of various ingredients.
But when the restaurant closed in December 2014 — it found a new home in Hawthorne a year later — it left a sizable void in the neighborhood. Now, Chargha House is stepping in to provide Culver City with a new spot for Halal Pakistani food. Located in a strip mall adjacent to a Big Lots store, the small restaurant offers many of the same items as Zam Zam Market once did, but the menu here goes much deeper. Not only that but it maintains regular hours, too.
Pakistani cuisine in L.A. is both under-represented and widely scattered. A short stretch of Inglewood Avenue through Hawthorne and Lawndale is home to Al Watan, Al Noor and the recently relocated Zam Zam Market. There are also two Pakistani places in the far northern and northwestern San Fernando Valley — and that’s pretty much it.
If you’re not familiar with Pakistani food, it’s generally more meat-intensive than regional cuisines from neighboring India, with beef dishes common. It’s also usually spicier than Punjabi-style Indian cuisine, but not off-puttingly so. Chargha House has familiar Indian dishes on the menu, particularly under the vegetable section, but the Pakistani items are the ones you should be ordering.
A highlight is the namesake of the restaurant, chargha. Chargha is chicken marinated in spices and yogurt, then prepared in a tandoori oven. Available either as a half or whole chicken, it has a spicy kick and a nice char yet retains its moisture. This is truly one of the best chicken preps in L.A., with a great price as well.
There’s nihari, considered the national dish of Pakistan, which consists of chunks of beef shank in a spicy curry gravy. Another dish is haleem, a slow-simmered stew of beef, wheat, lentils and spices. Two dishes, maghaz nihari and maghaz masala, make use of cow brains, the latter stir-fried with onions, tomatoes, chilies and spices.
Ok, these are all fine and well, but what of the biryanis? Chargha House has five different biryanis, with a weekend-only special of dum biryani, a bone-in chicken version. Kabobs are available as well. Sadly, there is no lamb pulao on the menu, but that’s just about the only item missing from this spot.
For those of you who miss some of the endearing randomness that used to define Zam Zam Market, there is a bit of that at Chargha House, too. Like its nearby predecessor, Chargha House has been known to run out of some items and, as it's essentially a two-person operation with an owner-chef, you should plan on a wait for your order.
Fortunately, among the business types and Loyola Marymount academics on hand for lunch, no one seemed to mind either the wait or the level of spiciness. Gentrification — and the toned-down spicy food perhaps prepared as a result of it — be damned.
Chargha House, 5571 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City; (424) 228-4623.