My parents are Indian-Burmese. I’m the youngest of four, and the only one born in America. Growing up in Southern California, I was exposed early to a wide variety of foods; it was not unusual for me to eat a South Asian biryani, a Burmese mohinga—a dish of rice noodles and fish—and Del Taco all in the same day (a pretty good eating day, I’d say). When my eldest sister got married to a Pakistani guy she’d met in college, my meals got even better. That’s when I learned about the deliciousness that is nihari.
This rich, spicy beef stew has roots in the latter years of the Mughal Empire, in the late 18th century. The dish is typically made with beef shank slowly cooked for hours until the meat is fork-tender and its fat has rendered, creating a round and flavorful sauce that sticks to your lips. A squeeze of lemon or lime helps brighten it, along with a final flourish of cilantro and a few slivers of raw ginger. Use some freshly baked naan to mop it all up and go to town. It’s PFG. My brother-in-law taught my sister how to make it, and it’s been on heavy rotation in the family ever since.
In San Francisco, Pakwan Restaurant has the closest thing I’ve found to the nihari I grew up eating. It’s spicy and a little oily; it doesn’t hold back, just like my sister’s.
Pakwan’s founders, Mohammad Shahbaz and Khalid Amin, are Pakistani immigrants who met in college in the 1980s and became roommates, then friends and eventually business partners.
“For me, it was a passion—I enjoyed cooking,” said Shahbaz, who worked for a time as a civil engineer, while Amin studied hotel and restaurant management.
They opened Pakwan in 1999, and 25 years later, the restaurant has five locations—three in the city and two in the East Bay. The original is on O’Farrell Street in the Tenderloin, but I’ve been eating at the 16th Street Pakwan since I moved to the city more than 16 years ago, and it’s just as solid as the flagship. Shahbaz and his son, Danial, run these locations, plus another in San Francisco, on Ocean Avenue, while Amin oversees outlets in Hayward and Fremont.
What makes Pakwan so good? For one thing, they source a lot of their spices straight from Pakistan and toast and grind them daily–a crucial step that helps awaken the spices. “It gives you a better flavor,” says Shahbaz.
The other dish I gravitate to is Pakwan’s chicken biryani, a fragrant rice dish that’s eaten throughout South Asia. It’s the one dish I always ask for when I go home to visit my family. I would go as far as to place biryani up there with the world’s greatest foods, side-by-side with pizza and tacos.
Pakwan’s version features a massive mound of fragrant rice, generous chunks of marinated chicken and perfectly cooked potatoes to soak up the ghee and spices. Pakwan is generous with the fried onions, which provide sweet bursts of umami that are a crucial component of a good biryani. Top it with raita—a cooling yogurt sauce that complements the spicy rice. Personally, I prefer squirts of Pakwan’s herby green chutney—it has a bit more character, and it’s free.
Did I mention Pakwan makes its own yogurt and ghee? This sort of attention to detail elevates the quality of the food and creates consistency. It shows they care.
Do not miss the tandoor section. Meats cooked over charcoal are simply superb. Whether it’s tacos al carbon or wild Norwegian mackerel grilled over the hearth at the fancy-tasting menu restaurant kiln, there’s just something magical that happens when smoke meets meat. The tandoor is a perfect tool for this process, as it traps and concentrates the smoke around the meat, creating a more intense aroma and flavor.
Order the beef seekh kabob, which is made daily with fresh ground beef mixed with extra fat trimmed from beef shanks, a load of dry spices, fresh ginger and garlic paste and a healthy helping of diced green serrano chiles. Wrap it in a piece of naan and make a sandwich. Together, one kabob and an order or naan will set you back a whopping $6. Lamb chops and bone-in-chicken legs are also a nice choice from the tandoori menu.
Three last Pakwan pro-tips: 1) Pay attention to the changing daily menu of specials, and if you see haleem on the menu, order it. This hearty chicken lentil and grain porridge is one of my favorite dishes at Pakwan. 2) The restaurant is BYOB. I’d suggest BYOW, actually, because beer can be a heavy beverage to pair with such a rich cuisine. Instead, pair a pét-nat or some other effervescent wine with your Pakistani fare. The bubbles are just the thing to cut through the spicy richness of it all. 3) Pakwan is open on holidays, including Thanksgiving and Christmas, making it an excellent option in case cranberries and stuffing aren’t your thing.
Omar Mamoon is a San Francisco-based writer and cookie dough professional. Find him on Instagram.
️ 🗓️ Open 7 days a week | 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
📍 3180-82 16th St., San Francisco (see website for other locations)