Early on a Saturday night the scene at Red Chili Pakistani restaurant is heating up. Smoke-laden aromas from spice-crusted, tandoori-charred meats float above the crowd. Tables groan under the weight of delicately perfumed biryanis. Waiters rush from the kitchen bearing towering stacks of steamy tandoori nan to tear up and dip into tongue-numbing curries or to wrap around chunks of flavor-infused meats.
The menu at this Northridge restaurant may read like a familiar north Indian one with its chicken tikka and saag paneer. But Pakistani cooks seem to have inherited their own flair for seasonings. And Red Chili employs that legacy to create traditional Pakistani flavors as luminous and focused as lightning.
The tartness and crunch of coriander seeds mix with the muskiness of cumin and rich yogurt to accent a tender tandoori-roasted lamb rack. Sausage-like seekh kebab is laced with minced fresh cilantro and fresh green chile — whether the beef or chicken version. Behari botti of cubed beef gets a marinade of shredded green papaya and seasoned yogurt.
Impressive though its traditional cooking may be, Red Chili has an unexpected side. Its alter ego, called Red Chili Express, sits at the opposite end of the same mini mall. In place of curries and kebabs at this stylishly converted doughnut shop are sandwiches that almost seem lifted from menus of the hippest of gastropubs: a chicken tikka burger topped with pepper jack cheese or with mango barbecue sauce; a wasabi steak melt; a veggie melt with chipotle coleslaw. There are buffalo wings and a couple of teriyaki bowls too, and like its sister restaurant, all dishes are halal — the Muslim equivalent of kosher.
"It's for the young people," says Red Chili co-owner Syed Shahzad, who worked in the telecom industry for about 20 years before opening the restaurant with two partners last year.
Red Chili Express, dreamed up by Lovish Bedi, the youngest of the venture's three partners, courts Pakistani Americans wanting halal meals but whose tastes have been shaped by the mongrel mix of L.A.'s globally inspired fast food. Though the two restaurants reflect the state of 21st century Pakistani American eating, it's the traditional dishes I'd pick for my "500 things to taste before you die" list.
One of those choices would be nihari. This stewed beef is the color of red earth, with sauce powered by a staggering quantity of ground chile and seasonings. It's as popular for breakfast in Pakistan as Cheerios are here. Its garnish of chopped fresh ginger adds a brilliant punch of fresh sweet heat. It is with this dish and the house specialty, the saucy tomato-based chicken karahi, that you realize this cooking is more about the sauce than what the sauce accompanies. They beg to be soaked up with rice or nan.
Heading up the kitchen is Shahzad's partner Nadeem Khan, who entertained the idea of becoming a chef while he cooked in a luxury hotel kitchen before his previous career in the telecom industry. At one point Khan lived for about a year in China. Now he's thinking about doing some halal Chinese items for the Express venture.
"Pakistanis love Chinese," Shahzad says, "but most don't eat pork so they rarely patronize Chinese restaurants."
LOCATION: 18108 Parthenia St. (in Parthenia Center), Northridge, (818) 775-0733.
PRICE: Appetizers, $1.50 to $3.99; entrees, $6.99 to $ 12.99; nan, $1.09 to $2.99.
DETAILS: Red Chili Pakistani restaurant, open daily 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Red Chili Express, open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day except Monday. Visa and MasterCard. No alcohol. Lot parking.