“These things,” Shan’s saying, patting the dough in his hand, turning it over and over while the flour showers down between his fingers, “all of these things, take care.” His eyes motion for his busy hands at the cook station, organized meticulously, fingerprints in the spice containers, knives at the ready.
“You have to care about food like this.” and he lays the dough over the paddle, pulls the topper off the tandoor, heat burbling out of it like the foam on an overpoured beer, swirling in the already suffocating heat of the kitchen, pooling around our ankles and rising into the roar of the hood fan. He slaps the dough to the inside of the oven, and it sticks there, swelling in places, coloring warmly.
Krishan and I look at each other and the word ‘awesome’ ripples noiselessly through the air between us. We’re nerding out real hard on this one. Between the oven, the serious looking dudes behind us working like a battle hardened mortar crew, and taste of the product of all that seriousness and care still heavy on our tongues and in our guts, we are trippin balls. Sensory overload. Cocaine at a KISS concert, only, you know, good.
You can find Naan-N-Curry at the corner of 3rd and Burnett in downtown Renton in a building that’s over 100 years old, tucked between a bank and an auction place. Maybe you’ve heard about it, considering that it’s got 700 and something Yelp reviews and a fat chunk of Urbanspoon and Google plus ratings. Maybe you read about it in the Seattle Met or on one of the many Halal eating guides that have featured it over the past few years. I certainly had never heard of it, which surprised me, considering that, in the course of our work, Krishan and I have spent a good chunk of our time following shitheads through that former coal mining town, pulling surveillance from the backs of panel vans, tailing old beater cars down alleys to the snap and flicker of a Nikon shutter opening and closing. I thought I was starting to get to know that city pretty well. It’s hard not to get to know a place that you’re trying to learn the street names of so that if you catch a bullet in the gut you know where to send the paramedics. So when Krishan asked me to meet him at the Pakistani/ Indian food place on 3rd. My response was,
“The fuck are you talking about?”
I’d been up and down 3rd. I knew which direction it ran, what zip code it was in and how long it took to get to Valley Medical from there. (12 minutes. 7 if our buddy Danil is driving.)
“Naan N Curry” he said, and my brain tried to turn over twice on empty. Nothing.
So he sent me the address and I punched into my google machine, fired up the jalopy and set out to learn something, which is exactly what happened.
Krishan knew what he was about when we sat down in the place and he ordered for me like a confident guy on a date. With my permission of course. It was beautiful. He was like,
“Is it cool if I order for you?”
And I was all,
“Oh, a man who knows what he wants. Tee hee. Yeah.”
And he was like,
“We’re gonna have an order of the Chicken Tikka Masala, some garlic naan, the Boti kebab with lamb and two glasses of the mango lassi.”
And I fanned myself with my acrylic nails and took in the interior of the of the place. Dark colors, splashed in light by the fixtures on the walls. Bollywood on the TV, in all its crazy glory, and the smell eastern spices floating through the room, just plain not fucking around. Then the lassi hit the table and my focus drained down into the glass.
“Everything in this place is made from scratch.” Shan is saying but his eyes are on the tandoor and the spatulas in his hands. Behind him on the assembly line, there are bulk spices, separated into their basest elements. No store bought mixes back here. No tubs of name brand dairy waiting to be plopped lazily into dishes and upsold. Just hard working people with pieces of excellence mid-assembly. “We could buy yogurt at the store and use it to make the lassi, but it doesn’t taste the same. It’s not as good. That’s important to us.”
I want to preface this next part with the fact that I FUCKIN LOVE YOGURT. I can’t trace the geneology of that obsession back to any particular moment in my past. It wasn’t some family tradition or childhood experience that I latched onto. It was just back in there like a genetic anomaly. Yogurt=Good. I eat it almost daily as an after dinner snack and my wife won’t watch me spoon it down because the fervor and attention with which I do it is straight up upsetting. SO, that being said, it’s not particularly surprising that I would be all about the lassi, a beverage that originated from the Punjab region and is made with water, spices, fruit (in this case mango) and most importantly, some tasty ass homemade yogurt. Despite my predisposition, I feel like I can look at this objectively and say that it was incredible. Life changing. Epiphanic. Well, kind of objectively.
The food came next, all at once, probably 10 minutes after we ordered it, steaming lustily. The pace and aggression of our eating increased with the intensity of an avalanche. Couple chunks of ice slipping down a hill as we took the first few bites, felt the flavor crackle over our tongues like pop rocks. Whole sheet of ice let go as we tore chunks off the garlic naan and started dipping it in stuff, then I got a hold of some tangy, perfectly cooked lamb and it was total chaos roaring down the mountain. We couldn’t eat fast enough. Plates were licked. I think I dipped some naan in a candle, because I was on autopilot and there wasn’t any tikka masala left to smoosh it into.
When the dust had settled, I was sufficiently sold on the place. I flagged down a waitress and asked her a few questions, which led to her flagging down Shan, the son of the owner, which led to Krishan and I being led, Willy Wonka style, through the kitchen while Shan explained the intricacies of Pakistani/Indian food, and the love with which they make it. That brings us finally to standing in front of a tandoor, watching Shan peel naan off the side of it with spatulas, saying,
“I’ve been around this food for my whole life. I remember when I was 7, sitting in the back of a van, heading back from a catering gig that I’d been on with my dad.” They catered, and still cater, a lot. The back kitchen area is full of industrial looking machines that they use to crank out huge portions of quality food for some pretty prestigious clients. Shan continues, “ There was a huge dish full of rice pudding beside me, and my dad took a corner too hard and BLAM!” Shan slips the golden naan out of the oven, flips it onto the cook station and one of the cooks descends on it with butter and garlic.
“I was covered in rice pudding, head to toe.” Shan says, laughing.
He’s picked up a master’s degree in finance and worked in some other fields, since then. But he couldn’t stay away from the family business. And how could he? It was about history and care and passion, and you don’t just walk away from something like that. Especially not when you’ve been immersed so completely in it.