California Avenue has experienced something of a renaissance over the last few years. New bike racks line glittering glass sidewalks, and new trees can be spotted next to storefronts. However, this transformation has come with a cost: rising rent prices have driven many businesses away, including the latest victims: restaurants Fire Oak and Barley and well-established business Keeble and Shuchat. But Zareen’s, California Ave’s newest acquisition, is here to stay.
With a wide range of Pakistani and Indian food, unique decor and a convenient location, Zareen’s has become a local hit. Books line the walls, hovering on floating shelves over booths and stacked next to the menus for customers to read while waiting in line. Cartoons taped next to the glass explain the concept of consent, and a poster next to the menus label the establishment as a proud sponsor of the ACLU, NPR, Planned Parenthood, Doctors Without Borders and more. In short, it is social justice heaven.
The place is packed most nights and the air is filled with a restless, lively hum. There are friends catching up over mango lassi, couples looking for unique cuisine and families frantically seeking a restaurant that will suit everyone’s tastes. With an assortment of nut-free, gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan options (not to mention up to three cups of free chai), Zareen’s has something for everyone.
For the Beginner: Punjabi Chicken Burger ($8.99) 2 1/2 stars
I chose the Punjabi Chicken Burger as a gateway food. It is designed for those who want to get a taste of Indian cuisine without the full force of Indian seasoning. The burger is made of ground chicken with onions, jalapeños and other vegetables. Sadly, this plate did not meet expectations. Although I found the sauce excellent, and the cucumbers on the burger were an interesting twist, the chicken itself turned out to be rather unappetizing. The jalapeños made everything a bit too spicy to really appeal to those unfamiliar with Indian food, but it didn’t have very much flavor besides that. The hamburger bun was soggy when the food arrived, and my overall impression of the meal was that it was American food trying too hard to seem “cultured.” The one redeeming quality was the masala fries. The fries were salty and dusted with masala seasoning, which gave it an unexpected but enjoyable kick. However, the burger on its own was not very appetizing.
For the Vegetarian: Aloo Tikki ($9.25) 4 1/2 stars
For a more vegetarian-friendly option, I chose the Aloo Tikka. With potato cutlets and sides of curry, rice and dahl, this dish was an instant favorite. The potatoes were the perfect combination of buttery and salty, with a subtle hint of pepper. The spices were more subdued in this entree, making it perfect for those who may not be used to über-spicy food. The Madras curry was creamy and the tomato flavor complemented the spices nicely. I would recommend getting a side of Garlic Naan ($2.99) with this meal. The curry is spicier than the potato cutlets and the naan helps balances the spices in the curry while bringing out the tomato flavor. The “salad” was more of a blend of chopped-up cucumbers, onions and carrots, but it went well with the meal. Although I normally avoid vegetarian entrées, this dish left me pleasantly surprised.
For the Traditionalist: Chicken Tikka Masala ($9.95) 4 stars
From those who have never had Indian food in their life to those who eat it every day, it’s hard to go wrong with this classic Indian dish. This entrée mainly consisted of boneless grilled chicken marinated in a creamy tomato curry similar to the one in the Aloo Tikka. The chicken had an enticing, lightly-charred flavor that accompanied the curry nicely. The spices balanced the flavor of the chicken without drowning the meat in seasoning — a nice addition to the dish. The side of rice went very well with the curry and salad, but I would suggest getting a side of Tandoori Naan ($2.99) to cut the heat, especially for those unaccustomed to spicy food. The crisp, almost-charred aftertaste of the just-baked naan gave the meal a more authentic feel, enhanced the grilled flavor of the chicken and made the curry taste slightly sweet. Although I wouldn’t say this dish was my favorite, it was thoroughly enjoyable, and definitely something I will be ordering in the future.