Chelo Pakistan: Lahore Tikka House

More than any other restaurant the Vicarious Travel Society has visited, Lahore Tikka House (or Patio, or “LTP”) near Coxwell and Gerrard almost perfectly replicates the experience of travelling to the host country. Both Margie and I speak from experience here: Margie as a shorter term visitor to Pakistan, myself as a resident for about a year in the late nineties. If it was 20 degrees hotter, there were a few chickens strutting aimlessly around and a muezzin being blasted through loudspeakers from the local mosque every few hours, Lahore Tikka House would be extremely difficult to tell apart from the real thing, an upscale Tikka joint in or near any major city in Pakistan. Although I have to admit that removing the paan counter near the front entrance took LTP’s authenticity game down a notch.

Miraculously, the construction project that has plagued, or perhaps defined LTP for some 10 years may now be completed:

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Although there is still some random electrical wiring sticking out over the front door still awaiting a fixture, another very accurate detail. There are fun climbing structures for the kids, just like at home:

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Along with charpoys (low, wooden bed frames laced with a string mattress — comfy, and allows the air to circulate underneath your sweating back on 40C nights) there are a few ornamental chairs and tables sprinkled around the sidewalk terrace on either side of the entrance, but the real action is inside the shamiana tent that runs along the east side of the building:

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Shamiana tents large and small are put up in Pakistan on the lawns of houses for major social events, and always for weddings, which are never intimate little affairs. Shamianas instantly bring back memories of big parties, and the permanent one at LTP is strung with lights and decorations in the traditional manner. Every support pole is wrapped with vividly coloured, glittering fabrics, there’s thumping hindi pop on the sound system, and the vibe is hectic, convivial and festive. Little kids run around, guests smile, talk animatedly and roar with laughter. Come during Eid for all the festivity X2, plus a major fashion show on the part of the patrons.

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The tables are long, plastic and fairly sturdy: chairs are of about the same description. There are no tables for two, because people rarely come to LTP in groups smaller than 8. A friendly greeter meets you at the entrance, guides you to a table and hands you some little paper menus. The drill is that you then walk over to a counter in the main building, tell them what food you want and they hand you a small metal stand holding a plastic card with a number on it.

The ordering counter is right next to the chaat stand, if you just can’t wait:

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You take the number back to your table and eventually the runners from the kitchen find it in the great sea of humanity and deliver your food to you. Service is efficient, forgotten items quickly supplied, and expediters watch every section carefully, clear tables and circulate with skewers of freshly grilled green chiles for those seeking a little more heat. Negotiations for drinks are between you and these runners: there are some classic subcontinental soft drinks like Limca and Vimto, as well as the usual north american stuff, and three kinds of lassi (sweet/salt/mango):

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It was a serviceable lassi, a little on the thin side. Needless to say, LTP is a strictly Halal establishment and there is no liquor on offer. For food, this time we ordered 2 samosas (one meat, one vegetable), Karahi Gosht (a Lahori lamb curry), a Beef Kabab/Chicken Tikka rice sizzler, 2 butter naans and 3 regular naans, and the Combo Sizzler (Tarka Daal, Channa Daal, Palak and Aloo Gobi).

While we were waiting for the food, I thought I would go take a few pictures (which is why I missed the samosas). I called out to the guys working the tandoors (the roti-wallahs?) through a half window: would they mind if I took their picture? “Come in here and take a better one, come around by the kitchen door!” they beckoned. Fighting waves of runners coming out of the kitchen I squeezed into the entrance of the tandoor room. The one who had called out to me smiled, and gave me a hearty, floury handshake. We chatted a bit about Pakistan while (after a quick hand wash) he continued to stick rounds of soft, white leavened dough to the inside of the blast-furnace hot tandoor, and a colleague deftly removed them with long steel tongs after about 2 minutes. The synchronicity in this room, the fluid choreography between workers was remarkable: even while I stood there, getting in the way they didn’t burn a single naan. They just knew when the bread was perfect, by smell or by some other sense altogether, and at these temperatures, waiting 12 seconds too long would have ruined it.

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“I’m going to make you something special,” said my roti-wallah. “Sesame naan. It’s sweet. It’s a sweet one. Just like you.” 2 minutes later, he handed me a naan, completely encrusted with sesame seeds. I hustled it back to our table, where the rest of the food had already arrived:

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But we devoured the sesame naan first. Delicious. The seeds were toasted perfectly by the brief time in the tandoor, and there was a fine crust of white sugar made into a crunchy light glaze by the blistering heat that provided an unexpected shellac of sweetness. We ate it without anything else: I’m not sure if it’s supposed to go with other food or not, but I can see how the touch of sweet would damp down a particularly fiery curry quite well.

What hit the table first were the condiments, a little salad, some raita and some tamarind chutney:

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Then came the Combo Sizzler:

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This is a most satisfying dog’s breakfast of vegetarian options: a good deal if you want a bit of everything and you’re not too fussed about the different elements being separate and distinct. Tarka daal cuddles up with channa daal….the palak is interwoven throughout, although the aloo gobi remains aloof at one end of the platter. It’s rich, perhaps even a tad greasy with lots and lots of ghee, nice retention of texture on the daal. This is not a soupy, fine daal, but the type where every legume is visible and individual.

The beef kabab and chicken tikka rice sizzler:

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consisted of the advertised meats (the beef was the kofta kebab style, ground beef and spices packed around a skewer) atop a mound of fluffy white basmati streaked here and there with saffron. The chicken was marinated in tandoori masala, seared briefly and then quickly fried on a flat-top grill with onions, pepper and a few tomatoes. A generous handful of fresh coriander bestowed a little vegetable crunch. This was great with the rice and also nice picked up with soft pieces of hot butter naan.

The Karahi Gosht was a simple lamb curry:

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with a fiery undertone of fresh ginger and real cinnamon bark. The sauce was thick and luxurious, the lamb tender and still on the bone. Perfect with the naan.

Earlier we had noticed a young man in an Afghani vest circulating with a tray bearing a large teapot. On special occasions, we had seen this teapot before and our hopes were raised for Kashmiri chai. Luckily we were not disappointed.

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Kashmiri chai is made with a particular tea leaf that is supposed to colour the milk a delicate pink during the boiling/steeping. It is served with condiments: sugar, of course, and chopped pistachios and almonds:

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I asked for two sugars, and the results were most pleasing:

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It’s subtle, not nearly as spicy or robust as regular chai. There’s a light warmness, a full tea taste and interesting texture from the nuts, which you mumble quietly in your mouth until the chai is gone.

The purple T-shirts of the runners say in ornate script on the back “Try Lahori Kulfi”, advice we felt we must follow. We ordered three: no choice of flavour at LTP, it’s almond or the highway:

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Made in house, in tall metal moulds much like those once used to make candles, the badam kulfi dictatorship is a style of government you could get used to. The milk tastes like it has been slowly boiled down with sugar, much in the same style as for mithai sweets. It’s creamy, smooth and sweet, caramelized and flecked with pulverized almonds, with one whole one at the bottom to seal the deal.

By the time we left, the tent and both floors of the main building were full. There had to be at least 300 people either eating, waiting for food or in recovery. When we paid (by walking up to the till with our number in hand), the hostess was visibly relieved to be getting one of her numbers back: “we’re so busy, we’re running out!” But no matter how busy they are, there is never any pressure to leave. LTP was one of the first restaurants the Vicarious Travel Society ever dined at, and only part of the reason we keep coming back is the food. Of course, the tent is fun and creates an uncannily Pakistani atmosphere, but perhaps the most authentic part of the experience is the classic warm welcome and personal attention we get from everyone from the runners right on up to the owners, with whom we have discussed such diverse topics as seagulls and Rob Ford over the years.

I knew practically nothing about Pakistan before I ended up living there in 1996, and like most North Americans, I didn’t know what to expect, but I certainly didn’t expect the kindness, keen interest and generosity of the people I routinely encountered. Islam includes a long tradition of offering hospitality and kindness to strangers and you’ll find that in spades at Lahore Tikka House. It’s an unusual and exotic environment, but it also feels like going home.

Lahore Tikka House, 1365 Gerrard Street East http://www.lahoretikkahouse.com

$80.00 for three adults, one young adult and one little kid, including tax, tip, lassis, kashmiri chai and kulfi.

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