July 22, 2009 > Restaurant Review: Pakwan Restaurant
Restaurant Review: Pakwan Restaurant
By Denny Stein
Walk in the door on a Friday night and a cacophony of sensations overwhelms you. The Babel of languages (English, Pakistani, Chinese, Spanish, Philippino), intertwine with the pungency of middle eastern herbs, sharp meaty smell from the grill, the warm yeast aroma of fresh bread, and the sweet spices of hot Chai. This is Pakwan, a small take-out or eat-in restaurant on Fremont Avenue in Irvington. Pakwan might be incongruous in a small town, but here in Fremont, it is living illustration of our multi-ethnic character, where food conquers cultural differences.
The line to order from the podium stretches out the door, but moves quickly. Specials are chalked on the board behind the cashier; menus are at the ready in a box. Kashmiri Goat, Biryanies, Meethas, Bihari Boti Kabab, Nan, Gosht ke Pakwan, Bengan Bartha translate to chicken and meat curries, basmati rice dishes with lamb or vegetables, Tandoori BBQs, and desserts. Best of all, if you stand on tiptoe at the counter, you can see into the kitchen and watch the Nan dough slapped against the side of the tandoor oven, flipped and fished out - puffed with brown pockets of hot air, now chewy, warm mouthfuls of delight.
Obviously all the choices are satisfying because Pakwan does not lack for customers. Dr. Park, my dining companion, pronounced the food "alive, never boring," and deemed the "freshness of the spices amazing." Plain white fluffy Basmati rice goes well with everything, and contrasts with the rich colors and fiery spices of the more exotic offerings. Chicken Tika Boti, from the tandoor, consists of boneless bite-size chicken sporting the red and brown of grilled spices, served with onions, parsley and a generous slice of lime. The Lamb Curry was topped with slivers of fresh ginger and hot peppers. Tamarind Sauce was readily available at the counter for a sweet contrast with the other flavors. Vegetarian dishes are also on the menu and include lentils, tomato, spinach and eggplant.
Pakwan is not pricey. Like a self-serve airline, customers fetch carafes of water from the large fridge by the door, pick-up china, silver and cups from the bar, and help themselves to steaming hot Chai from thermal pots. When you are ready for a mango Lassi (a cold mango and yogurt drink), or dessert of Kheer (rice pudding with bits of nuts) or Gulab Jamun, help yourself again from the cold case and pay the cashier.
Large family groups push tables together and it is not unusual to see 10-12 people of all ages passing, sharing and eating Pakwan food. Weekend evenings are busy; a group of eight women from Concord had stopped in on the recommendation of a Fremont relative and were enjoying the chicken dishes and daal. All the tables were filled and take-out orders were flying out the door.
Next to me, another group was waiting for their orders. Bouncing around their mothers, happily carefree, two youngsters chattered away with each other. At 4 and 5 years old, they were precociously bright and friendly, one wore a frilly yellow dress and tiny earrings, the other sported a sequin flecked tee-shirt and shorts. When I asked them to make-up names for this article, they chose Nora and Barbie, and said they liked the "rip off and eat chicken" and dessert. Their grins and giggles were as piquant as the food, and I'm sure their palates were more sophisticated than mine.
Pakwan's saffron walls are outlined with dark timbers and haphazardly decorated with wood and brass carvings. Several posters are worth studying, showing scenes of Peshawar and Lahore. Bentwood chairs surround the faux mahogany tables; the room is separated by a short free-standing wall in the middle. The restroom entrance is outside and is very clean and tidy.
The staff at Pakwan in Irvington is friendly and helpful and will explain the dishes or offer suggestions as to the spiciness of your order, if asked. Hayward and San Francisco also have Pakwan Restaurants. The Fremont location is closed on Mondays but open late (for Fremont) the rest of the week.
41068 Fremont Blvd., Fremont
25168 Mission Blvd., Hayward